Center for Gender & Sexuality Law
In 2003, the Florida District Court of Appeal reversed the murder conviction and life sentence imposed on Lionel Tate, who was twelve years old when he killed his six-year-old neighbor. Since Lionel was reported to be the youngest person in modern times to be sent to prison for life, the case had generated considerable debate, and the decision was appealed on several grounds. What persuaded the appellate court that the conviction could not stand, however, was the trial court's rejection of a petition by Lionel's attorney for an evaluation of his client's competence to assist counsel and to make a decision about the state's plea offer.
This case highlights an issue that has hovered almost unnoticed in the background of the recent punitive juvenile justice reforms that have resulted in criminal prosecutions of young teens and. adult-like sentences in juvenile court. This legal trend has been the subject of intense political and academic debates, focusing on whether the reforms fulfill the criminal law goals of public protection, individual accountability, and proportionate punishment – and generally, whether imposing harsh punishment on young offenders ultimately serves the public interest. By comparison, whether youths who face serious legal jeopardy have the developmental capacities to function adequately as criminal defendants has received little attention.
And yet, even a cursory examination of constitutional doctrine in this area and its application to the recent reforms make clear that this issue cannot be ignored. It is well established in American law that a defendant cannot be subject to criminal adjudication if he is incompetent to stand trial because he is unable to understand the charges against him or the nature of the proceedings, or to assist his attorney in his defense. The Supreme Court has emphasized that these requirements are essential for fundamental fairness and are mandated by the Due Process Clause because they protect the accuracy and integrity of criminal proceedings. The conventional standard by which competence is evaluated focuses on adults' cognitive deficiencies caused by mental illness or mental retardation. Beginning in the 1970s, courts and legislatures have extended this protection to mentally impaired youths adjudicated in juvenile proceedings. However, few lawmakers have addressed the impact of developmental immaturity on competence.
Elizabeth S. Scott & Thomas Grisso,
Developmental Incompetence, Due Process, and Juvenile Justice Policy,
N. C. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/331