Young people unfit for court process

The fact more than 60 percent of adolescents engage in some antisocial behaviour is widely supported by research. Our responses to young people during this critical and vulnerable period of development can be pivotal, because, while most naturally desist from such behaviour as they reach adulthood, for some it will lead to police involvement. For a smaller number of young people, their behaviour will mean they appear in the Youth Court or even the District or High Court.   

The court room is a complex and often foreign environment for most who end up there, full of jargon, rules and expectations. The demands of the court environment frequently exceed the knowledge and developmental capabilities of adolescents and complicate their interaction with the justice system. The New Zealand youth justice system is based on a rehabilitative approach developed to divert young people away from a life of crime. Yet it appears not all aspects of the system successfully support implementation of the developmentally responsive approach it is internationally celebrated for. 

For any person to go to court, they must be ‘competent to stand trial’. It is not a matter of whether they were or were not of sound mind when they committed the alleged offence (that is about insanity); rather, it’s about whether they can ‘competently’ engage in and mount a meaningful defence throughout the court process. To be considered incompetent to stand trial in a New Zealand court, you need to be assessed as having a mental impairment, which is usually the result of a mental disorder, intellectual disability or cognitive deficit. A young person's developmental level, by itself, is not usually legally recognised as sufficient grounds to find them incompetent. 

There is a wealth of literature and research from across disciplines that has established adolescence as a sustained period of development, where young people are at the very least more impulsive and more responsive to short-term rather than long-term rewards. A relevant example is a teenager who is innocent and wrongly accused of a crime but pleads guilty to get the court process over and done with quickly, rather than opting for a lengthier hearing, even though they would be unlikely to have the case against them proven.  

Internationally, research on the role developmental level may have on adolescent competency is sparse. It has found adolescents have a minimal foundation of knowledge and a reduced level of understanding regarding the youth justice system. To date, no extensive piece of research has critically examined this issue within the New Zealand context and the understanding and reasoning abilities of adolescents in New Zealand are not currently known. Therefore, it is unknown if New Zealand’s current youth justice system sufficiently accounts for their developmental capabilities.  

In my research for a Master’s thesis in forensic psychology, I argue that, due to developmental immaturity, many young people who go to the Youth Court in New Zealand are in fact ‘incompetent’ and unable to meaningfully participate in the court process. I suggest their developmental immaturity impacts their having both a factual and rational understanding of court proceedings, and this in turn impacts their ability to adequately communicate and assist their counsel. 

To explore this issue, I am using a semi-structured interview developed by my supervisor, Dr Clare-Ann Fortune. It is being piloted on 100 young people from schools around New Zealand.  

What we expect to find is there is a significant group of young people who do not have adequate levels of understanding of the Youth Court and its processes, not because of a mental disorder, intellectual disability or cognitive deficit, but because of their developmental immaturity. Results from the study will be compared with international research. Recommendations for changes that accommodate the developmental level of adolescents and improve their understanding and capacity to participate with the youth justice system will be presented in the thesis.  

Having young people appear in court, when they are in fact incompetent to meaningfully engage in that process, could have a detrimental effect on their future and contribute to their entanglement in our criminal justice system, potentially increasing the likelihood of them continuing to offend into adulthood. This is a clear ethical issue. The criminal justice system in New Zealand is on the brink of reform. As part of this, the need to reassess and better understand how we deal with young people who encounter the system is more important and relevant than ever.  

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