Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Importance of Mental Health Evaluations in Juvenile Cases (Part I of II)

Girls detained at a Santa Clarita detention facility in Los Angeles. Image Credit: LA Times.
According to a National Conference of State Legislatures report, approximately 70 percent—or 2 million—juveniles arrested each year in the United States suffer from a mental health disorder. One in five “suffer from a mental illness so severe as to impair their ability to function,” and in addition, juvenile offenders often suffer multiple disorders at once, substance abuse being the most common co-occurrence with mental illness. Dui Hua has previously pointed out that girls in conflict with the law are more likely than boys to attempt suicide and to self-mutilate. And the disproportionately high rate of girls who are also victims of sexual abuse places them at even greater risk of suffering from multiple mental health illnesses.

Perhaps the most famous recent criminal case in the United States involving mental health concerns and very young female defendants is the “Slender Man” incident in Wisconsin, in which two 12-year-old female defendants stabbed a classmate repeatedly and were charged with attempted homicide. This unusual case reflects the complex intersection between mental health, crime, and juvenile justice policy and suggests that the growing trend toward juvenile competency statutes in certain US states might be a path towards more humane and sensible treatment of juvenile offenders.

This article is another installment in Dui Hua’s investigation of how different states approach high profile felonies committed by juveniles 15 and younger. In a similar vein to earlier installments, two case studies involve female juvenile defendants and two involve males, and the states chosen represent a variety of juvenile incarceration rates and juvenile policies. See here for a broad survey of each state’s rate of juvenile confinement. State juvenile policy works best when the lowest possible proportion of the juvenile population is confined in a detention facility. Selecting states with varying juvenile incarceration rates and juvenile justice policies is instructive for analyzing juvenile justice trends in the United States.

This article compares different state-level policy on juvenile competency hearings and applies these policies to the specific facts of each case, inquiring whether the defendants in each case were provided a psychological or mental health exam before adjudication and sentencing. Competency refers to the minor’s ability to understand the proceeding against them and to assist in his or her own defense. Competency evaluations can uncover not just mental health issues facing defendants, but also substance abuse and developmental problems that often co-occur among adolescents.

This section presents serious crimes committed by juveniles in four states. Part 1 investigates the states of Massachusetts and Wisconsin representing states with relatively low juvenile incarceration rates. Part 2 examines the states of California and South Dakota, representing states with higher juvenile incarceration rates.

Massachusetts: Low Incarceration Rate (46-109.5 per 100,000 juveniles)

Facts: Mathew Borges is accused of stabbing Viloria Paulino, his Lawrence High School classmate on November 18, 2016, decapitating him and mutilating his body. Borges was 15 at the time of the crime.

Massachusetts on Juvenile Mental Health/Competency: A Massachusetts bill that would create a juvenile-specific competence law in Massachusetts has been pending in the legislature for years. In general, juvenile defendants should be briefly evaluated by a court clinician; a more comprehensive evaluation may be conducted in an inpatient setting, but many of juveniles cannot easily be seen in the short same-day time frame created by the initial triage stage.

Defendants Evaluated for Mental Health Before Conviction? The defendant does not appear to have been evaluated for mental illness since his arrest, despite mental health concerns noted in media reports. Classmates described Borges as a quiet teenager with anger issues, with one classmate saying “He was scary,” and that “He was negative to be around. He seemed mad at the world.” Another classmate stated that Borges was frequently involved in fights.

Wisconsin: Mid-Low Incarceration Rate (109.5-173 per 100,000)

Facts: In May 2014, two 12-year-old girls stabbed another girl of the same age 19 times to impress the fictional “Slender Man” horror character; the case has received extensive media attention and separate trials for the two defendants are currently pending. One of the girls, now 15-years-old, pleaded guilty but claimed that she could not be held responsible for her actions on grounds of insanity; she will be placed in a mental hospital for three years. The trial for the second girl is scheduled to begin on October 9.

Wisconsin on Juvenile Mental Health/Competency: Wisconsin appears to be among a minority of US states that have passed laws providing for mental health screening of juvenile offenders via competency hearings, which occur before juvenile defendants can be sentenced to confinement. Wisconsin has had this provision on its books since 1995; under Wis. Stat. 938.295(2)(a), in cases where “there is probable cause to believe that the juvenile has committed the alleged offense and if there is reason to doubt the juvenile’s competency to proceed, the court is required to order the juvenile to be examined by a psychiatrist or licensed psychologist.

Defendants Evaluated for Mental Health Before Conviction? Both defendants in the Slender Man case were assessed in 2014 for their competence to stand trial. Since then, one defendant was diagnosed with schizophrenia and both defendants have pled not guilty by reason of mental disease.