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Posted October 8, 2007

Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy Receives Grant to Focus on Restoring Capacity of Juveniles Found Incompetent to Stand Trial 

Jonathan Z. Cannon

The ability of juveniles to participate fully in the judicial system is often controversial. Add in some issue of incompetence, and the legal issues become even murkier.

Janet I. Warren, professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences and associate director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, has received a grant to further explore issues involving juvenile competency—specifically, to assist in the implementation and evaluation of a system for treating youth who have been determined incompetent to stand trial. Warren received $435,000 for the first of four years from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, drawn from federal funds from the National Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The award also will enable the institute to study the clinical and developmental factors that affect the capacity of impaired children and adolescents to assist their lawyers and make decisions.  

Observing that competence to stand trial is the most common form of pre-trial forensic evaluation conducted with adults, Warren said, “We are only beginning to understand the many psychological factors that affect a youth’s ability to navigate through a court process with the degree of understanding needed to assure a fair trial and protect other rights guaranteed to all people, whatever their age, by the U.S. Constitution.” 

This process of treating these troubled juveniles to help them develop the abilities they need “will require an intelligent and creative integration of emerging knowledge about adolescent development, psychopathology and education,” Warren said.

In reflecting on the importance of training community mental health professionals to provide this service, law professor Richard J. Bonnie, director of the institute, said, “The challenge lies in providing the necessary interventions in the least restrictive alternative so that the treatment itself does not deprive these youth of their liberty prior to an adjudication of guilt.”