Juvenile Competency and Pretrial Due Process: A Call for Greater Protections in Massachusetts for Juveniles Residing in Procedural Purgatory

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National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges




While juvenile courts continue to balance and reevaluate the dual goals of community safety and rehabilitation of youth, juveniles who are not competent to stand trial have been left without sufficient procedural protections. This paper examines Massachusetts’ approach to juvenile competency, due process, and pretrial procedure, within a national context. The inadequacies of the Massachusetts juvenile competency laws are not unique. Currently there are nineteen states that either entirely lack juvenile-specific competency legislation or merely incorporate inapposite adult criminal statutes and standards into the juvenile context—making it difficult or impossible for those juvenile courts to dismiss or divert a delinquency petition following an incompetency finding. Massachusetts and states similarly situated should adopt explicit statutory language to delineate the basis for a juvenile incompetency finding and the grounds for dismissing delinquency complaints pretrial after an incompetency finding has been made. This paper proposes that Massachusetts adopt a timeline for effecting such dismissals based in part on the amount of time a juvenile could face if committed to the juvenile correctional authority following an adjudication of delinquency. The paper also recommends best practices of states that are pioneering juvenile legislative reforms like dismissal timelines and incompetency presumptions. Finally, we suggest a more stringent regulatory framework be put in place governing the pretrial detention of youths who have been found not competent to stand trial—a framework that recognizes and preserves the juvenile's substantive rights to education, mental health and rehabilitative services. Without legislation, juveniles found not competent to stand trial remain subject to the prospect of indefinite locked detention, often without access to the necessary services that contribute to future success as well as attainment of competency. This lack of due process runs counter to the foundational goals of the juvenile justice system.

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