NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Competent are Youngsters to Stand Trial as Adults?

March 3, 2003

Significant proportions of children age 15 or younger charged with a crime are not competent to stand trial, according to a new study. The question arises from a Supreme Court ruling that retarded people and the mentally ill must be able to understand the charges against them and make basic decisions at trial.

Researchers and legal scholars have raised the question that if those categories of defendants are protected, should normal youngsters who similarly cannot comprehend the basics of law not be similarly protected?

The study by the Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice concluded that:

  • One-third of children ages 11 through 13 and one-fifth of those ages 14 or 15 understood legal matters at a level similar to that of mentally ill adults who have been found incompetent to stand trial.
  • Older adolescents did not perform significantly different from young adults.
  • Roughly 200,000 juveniles are criminally charged as adults every year.
  • The Justice Department estimates that 12 percent of the juveniles charged as adults in 1996 were younger than 16.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia set no minimum age at which children can be tried as adults -- and 27 set a minimum age for at least some crimes at 15 or younger.

Source: Adam Liptak, "Study Doubts Competence of Many Younger Juveniles Charged as Adults to Stand Trial," New York Times, March 3, 2003.


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