Juvenile Justice Information Exchange Illustration by Kathy McCarthy.
Continuing from Part I, Part II of “The Importance of Mental Health Evaluations in Juvenile Cases” explores how the states of California and South Dakota apply or fail to apply juvenile competency laws when it comes to violent crimes committed by young juveniles.
California: Mid-High Incarceration Rate (173-366.5 per 100,000)
Facts: A female defendant, Sarah Weeden, who was 14 at the time of the crime, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for the killing of Navnil Chand, who was killed by gunshot in a robbery by 23-year-old Sertice Melonson. The crime occurred in August 2005 and Weeden’s trial was in 2008. In April 2017, the 9th US Circuit Court of appeals reversed Weeden’s conviction and remanded for a new trial, finding that Weeden’s trial attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to have Weeden evaluated by a psychologist to determine Weeden’s capacity to form criminal intent. Weeden might be re-tried in juvenile court.
California on Juvenile Mental Health/Competency: According to the Youth Law Center based in San Francisco, California case law has held, since 1978, that children must be competent to stand trial, but the California legislature only passed a juvenile competence statute in 2010 (i.e., after Weeden’s trial). Since then, the legislative framework provides that if a juvenile case presents evidence that the defendant might not be competent to stand trial, the courts have a variety of informal and formal options to determine competency.
Defendants Evaluated for Mental Health/Competency Before Conviction? Weeden was never evaluated for competency by the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office, and Weeden’s attorney did not request a psychological evaluation, forming the basis for the reversal of Weeden’s conviction. In reversing the conviction, the 9th Circuit opinion criticized Weeden’s trial attorney “for not seeking a psychological evaluation on Weeden to determine the effect of her youth on her mental state and whether she could form the intent to rob.”
South Dakota: High Rate of Juvenile Incarceration (366.5-560 per 100,000)
Facts: In 2000, a jury convicted Daniel Charles of first-degree murder in 2000 in the sniper killing of his stepfather, Duane Ingalls. Charles was 14 at the time of the crime. Charles was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP), but such sentences were largely ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2012. Charles was resentenced to a 92-year sentence, a decision that was upheld by the South Dakota Supreme Court in March 2017.
South Dakota on Juvenile Mental Health/Competency: The South Dakota legislature passed a juvenile competency statute in 2013, giving trial courts wide latitude to order psychological evaluations to determine a juvenile defendant’s competency to stand trial, with the evaluation to occur within 30 days of the court’s order. This law was passed well after Charles was convicted and sentenced for killing his stepfather.
Defendants Evaluated for Mental Health Before Conviction? Extant accounts of the killing and the trial give no indication that mental health of Charles was considered, as the defense theory was based purely on the claim that Charles accidently shot the victim.
Why mental health evaluations are critical for juvenile justice
Among the four violent criminal cases examined, the only one in which the defendant was given a psychological evaluation before adjudication was in Wisconsin, a state that had an existing statute covering juvenile competency hearings. Juvenile incarceration rate was not associated with a greater tendency to conduct mental health evaluations— in the Massachusetts case, the defendant was not evaluated despite presenting significant mental health concerns. These findings support appeals by proponents to implement juvenile competency legislation so that courts follow clear procedures regarding when and how juvenile defendants should receive mental health evaluations. This growing trend is especially important given the complicated mental health issues facing adolescents and questions about criminal culpability that arise from scientific findings about the juvenile brain. Although these cases are a small sample, they suggest that if state legislatures provide statutory guidance on juvenile competency, it becomes more likely that juvenile defendants will receive a professional evaluation before they are sentenced to a lengthy term of confinement. With a mental health evaluation, youth in conflict with the law have a better chance of accessing the necessary mental healthcare and community services that they need to recover and live a better life.
If the mental health problems of more juveniles are identified and early intervention is prioritized in case handling, more juveniles and communities would also benefit from the policy advances being made in juvenile mental healthcare programs. A 2016 NCBI/NIH study on mental health and juvenile crime examined the effectiveness of various intervention and treatment programs/approaches, finding that treatment models including Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions (CBI) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) are effective treatment frameworks for juvenile offenders. These models share two major features: integrated systems of care (education, child protection, family participation, and mental healthcare) that intervene in juvenile cases in a collaborative manner to meet the interrelated needs of each individual youth; and an approach to rehabilitation that emphasizes an effective screening and assessment process.
If we don’t identify mental health issues in juveniles prior to conviction, we run the risk of allowing the carceral system to be the site where juvenile mental health disorders are identified and treated, or worse yet further ignored. Prisons have repeatedly proven to worsen inmate’s mental health and contribute to their recidivism. According to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, the timing of mental health intervention is critical:
“Youths who immediately receive a mental health screening are more likely to have their problems identified and treated. Often, however, screening and assessment take place only after a juvenile has been adjudicated and placed in a correctional facility. A prompt mental assessment of juveniles at initial court intake allows the information gained to be used in making diversion or other dispositional decisions.”
Reforms in Nevada are consistent with these findings, as they have appropriated funding and mandated the implementation of mental health evaluations and programs before a youth is convicted and punished. At Mendota Juvenile Facility in Madison, Wisconsin, results from a program to treat psychopathology among violent juvenile offenders are promising. The study finds that even among violent juvenile offenders who exhibit psychopathological traits, interventions focused on positive reinforcement and constant staff presence produced much lower rates of general and violent recidivism 4.5 years after offenders were released compared to recidivism rates among juveniles released from ordinary (non-psychopathology specialist) detention centers.
Despite the tragic circumstances behind these cases, hopefully they can buoy a growing trend towards juvenile competency statutes in the United States that grant better treatment for juvenile offenders and an overall reduction in juvenile incarceration.