The role of juvenile courts in the United States has evolved significantly since they were first established in 1899. Initially,
these courts focused on rehabilitation and some legal protections,
but as time passed new legislation gave children access to due
process, as well as greater penalties for serious offenses.
As the juvenile justice landscape has changed, so has the
recognition that children must be competent to stand trial
in juvenile court. All but one state — Oklahoma — has
acknowledged this right. In 1989, the Oklahoma Court of
Criminal Appeals — in a case involving juvenile “G.J.I.” —
held that Oklahoma’s competency statute was not applicable
to juvenile proceedings, saying that it was “neither appropriate
nor necessary” that a child understand a case against him or
her since the system was allegedly focused on treatment, not
punishment. Research journals and other publications have
long criticized Oklahoma as the lone outlier in rejecting this
procedural due process right.
Fast-forward 26 years and Oklahoma is now in line with
the rest of the country — and is in fact going even further with
its protections. The state’s new law may not have captured
the public’s or media’s attention, but it is important and long
overdue for children in delinquency proceedings who do
not have sufficient understanding of the process, and neither
realize the importance of having an attorney to assist them nor
understand the consequences of their decisions.
Harsher laws for children
Nationwide, new laws have led to harsher penalties, longer
periods of probation or treatment in locked facilities for
children who commit such crimes as theft, burglary and
possession of substances. Such children are also more likely
to be transferred from juvenile court to the adult system.
In addition, concerns with confidentiality have waned, and
A better law in Oklahoma
protections that once prevented the release of juvenile records
have eroded to comply with media demands for release in
the interest of purported public safety concerns. A juvenile’s
record may also be used to enhance punishment if that
juvenile later becomes involved in the adult system or to
prevent an individual from joining the military. Accordingly,
it is important for states to make sure juveniles have some
understanding of the process and are able to communicate with
their counsel why they might not be guilty as charged. Just like
adults, children may be incompetent due to mental illness or
intellectual disability, but unlike adults they may also be victims
of developmental immaturity, even though not all states include
developmental immaturity as a ground for incompetency.
Oklahoma is now ahead of the curve for progressive change in
this area of the law, having inserted “developmental immaturity”
as one of the grounds for a finding of juvenile incompetency.
Under the Oklahoma law, credentialed forensic evaluators will
provide these juvenile competency assessments to the courts.
Service professionals will provide remediation to improve
juveniles’ capacity to return to court, participate meaningfully in
proceedings and make informed decisions about their cases.
However, no consensus exists on what programming
methods constitute evidence-based treatment. Therefore,
research is needed to advise state agencies as to what
programming will work best for treatment to competence.
Psychologists also have much to offer policymakers by
surveying courts’ and attorneys’ satisfaction with the process
and evaluation quality as has been studied in adult competency
(see LaFortune & Nicholson, 1995).
Oklahoma is now poised to provide these services, offering
children competency to remediation. We can only wonder how
juvenile G.J.I.’s life might have been different had this law been
available in 1989. n
“Judicial Notebook” is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the
Psychological Study of Social Issues). For citations in this article,
visit our website at www.apa.org/monitor/2016/01/jn.aspx.
Oklahoma leads the way
on juvenile competency
The state’s new law ushers in an era of progressive change for other
states to follow, though not without challenges.
By Kathryn A. LaFortune, JD, PhD, University of Tulsa