Professor examines juvenile justice

Assistant Professor of Psychology Christina Riggs Romaine
Assistant Professor of Psychology Christina Riggs Romaine (Photo by Keith Nordstrom)

Assistant Professor of Psychology Christina Riggs Romaine’s scholarship currently is focusing on juvenile competency and determining the best policies and practices for fair treatment within the juvenile justice system. During the fall semester, she presented an intriguing lunchtime talk on campus, “From the Research to the Courts: Enhancing Our Understanding of Juveniles’ Legal Abilities and Translating Findings into Policy and Practice.” We asked her about her work.

Tell us about this research.

As a clinical psychologist specializing in forensics (that is, the application of psychology to the legal arena) and the juvenile courts, the problems I tackle are those affecting youth who are in contact with the juvenile justice system. This project focuses on a specific area of forensic evaluation, juvenile adjudicative competence, or competency to stand trial. Our adversarial legal system relies on two capable adversaries: the defendant (along with his/her defense attorney) and the state. There is long-standing precedent that incompetent defendants should not be tried, but consideration of competence in youth has only evolved more recently, as juvenile courts became more punitive. Mental health professionals are asked to evaluate youths’ competence for the court, but have little research evidence to inform their recommendations to the courts. My current project looks at real, court-ordered evaluations as the source of information. With help from 11 Wheaton student research assistants, I have gathered information on more than 650 variables of interest for more than 350 juveniles whose competence was evaluated by the court, and explored the relationship between competence and mental health, intellectual disability and trauma-related factors. Because many states and jurisdictions are currently revising their juvenile justice policies regarding competence to stand trial, this research has led to ongoing implementation work to help systems put the best available research findings into practice.

What originally led to your interest in this research?

In my clinical practice before coming to Wheaton, I primarily conducted evaluations of juveniles’ competency to stand trial for the courts and became aware of serious gaps in what we know and what has been studied. There is little to no empirical literature on what improves competence-related abilities for youths with different presenting problems and almost no evidence base from which to make recommendations. I designed this project to address these gaps, and did so in a way that provides clear and quantifiable evidence that is useful to the court and to evaluators.

How does this relate to your coursework at Wheaton?

My research provides ongoing fodder and examples for my “Quantitative Research Methods” course and fits most directly with my “Psychology and Law” course where students learn about a breadth of issues from eyewitness accuracy to forensic evaluation of psycholegal issues such as competence to stand trial. My implementation work also informs my teaching in “Psychology and Law,” where I take advantage of available opportunities for students to practice translating research findings into useful information for a targeted audience. For example, one semester my students presented relevant psychological research to practicing law enforcement officers both at the Massachusetts Women in Law Enforcement Conference on Wheaton’s campus and at a research fair attended by the Norton Police Department. Instead of just learning about how forensic psychologists train law enforcement on relevant psychological research, students had the opportunity to do it and develop all the related translation, communication and prioritization skills.

Why is this important at this time?

It is important because, at its core, it is a justice issue.  Any person charged with a crime has rights to due process and counsel protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  The stakes can be high in the justice system, even for juveniles, and it is important that we understand the nature, duration and causes of youths’ difficulties participating as trial defendants, because to try a defendant who is not competent is fundamentally unfair and makes a mockery of our justice system. The work is timely because some jurisdictions are currently considering if and how to include consideration of juvenile competency in their juvenile justice policies and research provides helpful information to that process.

How does the research help the courts and juveniles?

This research was designed to provide useful information to evaluators and the courts about what mental health and developmental factors are associated with incompetency, and what may be helpful in improving certain problems over time. As results are published, I hope the findings will help evaluators make useful recommendations that will be effective for the court and the juveniles involved. Currently, this research informs my ongoing implementation work. With my colleagues at the National Youth Screening and Assessment Partners, I am currently working with two states as they implement their juvenile competency statutes and policies. I have been working with them to develop and provide trainings to evaluators that are in line with the current research evidence and best practices. In one state, we have been able to provide in-depth training to a large group of mental health professionals who conduct these trainings, and policy and practice training to more than 120 stakeholders in the juvenile justice system (including judges, attorneys and probation officers). To translate research into practice requires a combination of research and teaching skills that my scholarship and teaching at Wheaton make me uniquely prepared to undertake. It is exciting to see changes in local practice that directly impact the courts and communities they serve.

Any recent related publications?

The first paper from my competence research is in press and will be published in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health soon. It examines the practice of reporting the race and/or ethnicity of the evaluated defendant within the written forensic report to the court. This uses the data from my competence research as an illustration of the current state of the problem before exploring best practice guidelines, theoretical and empirical literature to make practice recommendations for ethical reporting in forensic evaluations. This paper adds to the recent literature on bias in forensic evaluation and calls evaluators to thoughtful action in their clinical practice. A qualitative analysis (co-authored by a Wheaton student) of this research was recently accepted for presentation at the 2019 American Psychological Association annual conference, and we have had six previous peer-reviewed conference presentations and posters at national and international conferences, co-authored by seven Wheaton students through work in my Law and Psychology Lab.