Oklahoma Watch is reporting a year-long series on mental-health issues in Oklahoma. The project is enabled by a grant from the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation and the Zarrow Families Foundation
Oklahoma Watch is reporting a year-long series on mental-health issues in Oklahoma. The project is enabled by a grant from the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation and the Zarrow Families Foundation

The Tulsa County boy’s relationship with family was one of instability, impoverishment and abuse.

Psychologists would later determine that he was mentally ill and very immature, even for 12 years of age. Yet his alleged crime was serious – felony assault with a dangerous weapon on a family member who had abused him.

The juvenile court ruled the boy delinquent, which led to a 12-month stay in a youth group home. He would eventually improve, but early on “his immaturity, mental illness, and traumatic history led to difficulties and an inpatient placement (in a mental-health facility),” said Dr. Ryan Jones, chief psychologist at the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs. He did not identify the boy.

That case, which occurred within the last two years, might have unfolded differently
had the boy been brought to court in any other state. Oklahoma is the only state in the nation that does not allow juvenile courts to issue determinations on whether youths in delinquency cases are competent enough to go through court proceedings.

Competency means a person has the mental capacity to understand court proceedings and assist an attorney in preparing a defense.

“Every other state in the union has juvenile competency. Oklahoma stands alone,” said Ben Brown, public defender at Oklahoma County’s juvenile division.

It’s not clear exactly how many juvenile delinquency cases would be affected if Oklahoma had a law allowing for juvenile competency determinations. Even advocates say it would likely be a low percentage of the thousands of juvenile cases filed each year. Currently, many youths are diverted to programs that are outside the juvenile justice system, prosecutors and defense attorneys say.

But cases where a juvenile’s competency is in question do reach the court, and the negative effects of a delinquent determination can carry over well into adulthood, say advocates of competency hearings. To protect youths who can’t understand what is happening or can’t assist an attorney, the state should give them the same rights in court that adults have, child advocates say.

An upcoming legislative hearing will examine the issue. Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie, said she requested an interim study, with a hearing on Oct. 9, after the matter was brought to her attention by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

Court Rulings

Past U.S. Supreme Court decisions in adult criminal cases have found that a person’s competency to stand trial is a fundamental due-process right. But the high court has not made a similar ruling in juvenile cases.

In Oklahoma, competency determinations are allowed in cases where a juvenile is tried as an adult and in “youthful offender” cases, in which a teenager is adjudicated for a serious crime but with limited punishment and probation terms. A person found incompetent can be sent to a clinic or medical professional who will try to establish competency within a certain time. If he or she remains incompetent, the charges are dismissed and the person is ordered to undergo community- or facility-based treatment.

Oklahoma’s lack of juvenile competency was solidified in 1989, when the state Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the juvenile justice system is rehabilitative in nature, as opposed to punitive, and thus determining competency is unnecessary.

Those who support competency laws say the juvenile justice system has become more punitive, producing negative effects that carry well into adulthood. As evidence, they point to tougher juvenile sentences; laws that can send delinquents to prison shortly after they turn 18 if they haven’t completed juvenile treatment programs; laws that bar adults with a delinquency record from serving in the military or owning guns, and the creation of a juvenile sex registry.

Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris questioned the view that the juvenile system has become more punitive.

“Most of these kids are going into probationary settings” where treatment is offered, Harris said.

A Push for Changes

Brown said he thinks the state will soon join the rest of the nation and allow for competency hearings, whether the change comes from the Legislature or the courts.

“They (juveniles) deserve a defense and the protection of all their rights, not just some,” he said.

One recent case in southern Oklahoma might have led to a change, Brown said.

The case involved a youth who was clearly suffering from severe developmental and psychological problems.

Brown said the court allowed the youth to undergo a psychological competency evaluation. When the evaluation found the youth was incompetent, the judge dismissed the case, saying the 1989 court ruling did not reflect the modern reality of the juvenile justice system. He asked prosecutors to appeal the case to the Court of Criminal Appeals, but the case was never appealed, Brown said.

Prosecutors “knew if this one went up (to the appeals court), what would happen,” he said.

The Immaturity Factor

Determining competency for juveniles is different than for adults, said Kathy LaFortune, a Tulsa attorney and psychologist who has worked with the state’s Indigent Defense System and has performed many competency evaluations.

For adults and juveniles, severe mental illness or a developmental disability can prevent them from being able to understand the proceedings or assist in their defense, LaFortune said.

But for juveniles, a third factor is immaturity.

“Age is extremely important,” LaFortune said. “The younger you are, the more likely it is to be a problem.”

Not all states recognize immaturity as a reason for finding incompetency, Brown said.

District Judge Doris Fransein, chief judge of the Tulsa County District Court’s juvenile division, said juveniles in delinquency cases are sometimes as young as 7 or 8 years old.

“They’re too young to have a clue,” Fransein said. “You have an issue of immaturity. That’s a big issue.”

LaFortune said the immaturity issue is borne out by growing research on adolescent brain development.

Tara Britt, director of the Tulsa County District Attorney’s juvenile division, said while there have been a few times where a juvenile competency law may have affected a case, it has not been a major issue.

Because the juvenile system is treatment-based, it’s likely most competency treatment could be redundant, Britt said.

Higher Costs

Training people to administer juvenile competency evaluations also would likely come with a price tag.

Keith Wilson, executive director of the state’s Office of Juvenile Affairs, told the agency’s board in August that while it’s likely the state will adopt a juvenile competency law, paying for it is another matter.

“We don’t object to it, but we are concerned about where those costs are going to be laid and who is going to be responsible for both the testing … and restoring the youngster to competency,” Wilson said. He called it a mental-health issue and “probably should be with the Department of Mental Health.”

OJA is already facing steep budget cuts this year that have affected youth Community Intervention Centers around the state.

A Schizophrenic Child

Jones, the OJA’s chief psychologist, cited the Tulsa County boy’s case as one where a competency determination might have led to a better outcome.

Jones said the boy showed signs of schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and depression. Ultimately, his treatment plan at the group home proved successful.

But he might have done better in a community environment, attached to a safe and dependable guardian, Jones said. The boy’s return to the outside world was not easy.

“Some of his success in the group home came from him acclimating and learning to live there and developing relationships with staff,” Jones said. “So once he was successful in the group home, he essentially had to leave, which was destabilizing and felt like starting over for him.”

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