A Pilot Study of the Porterville Developmental Center’s Court Competency Training Program

Published date01 March 2002
Date01 March 2002
Subject MatterJournal Article
/tmp/tmp-17OsmtBW6ACMmb/input Bertsch et al. / PORTER
OGRAM / March 2002
A Pilot Study of the Porterville
Developmental Center’s Court
Competency Training Program
Jennifer M. Bertsch
Jane A. Younglove
Marcee G. Kerr
Alliant International University
By statute, in California (and in many other states) if at the time of trial a defendant’s
mental competence is called into question, efforts must be made to render that individ-
ual competent before proceeding. If such efforts fail, the person is absolved of crimi-
nal responsibility. In light of this legal mandate, the Porterville (California) Develop-
mental Center created its Court Competency Training Program. The present study
was a limited evaluation of the Porterville program and involved developmentally
delayed criminal defendants rather than those who are mentally ill. Results showed
that individuals who were adjudged as incompetent to stand trial due to developmen-
tal disability and enrolled for 6 months in the training program demonstrated signifi-
cant gain in Competency Assessment Instrument (CAI) score. The same gain was not
evidenced by developmentally delayed Porterville residents who were not criminal
defendants and not enrolled in the training program. Although the results were based
on a small sample size, they do suggest that additional research with the CAI and
developmentally delayed criminal defendants would be fruitful.

Establishing competency to stand trial is a cornerstone of the criminal jus-
tice system. The legal community laid the groundwork for standards in
determining competency and established how psychologists and psychia-
trists must proceed when working with the courts to determine a defen-
dant’s competency. A number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have pro-
vided the legal framework for pertinent substantive and procedural standards,
starting with Dusky v. United States (1960). The Dusky Court established a
two-prong standard for competence, such that an individual must have (a)
AUTHORS’ NOTE: We are grateful to the Porterville staff, administrators, and residents
whose assistance and cooperation made it possible to conduct this research. Requests for
reprints should be sent to Jane A. Younglove, JD, School of Social and Policy Studies,
Alliant International University, 5130 E. Clinton Way, Fresno, CA 93727.
Criminal Justice Policy Review, Volume 13, Number 1, March 2002
© 2002 Sage Publications

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sufficient present ability to consult with an attorney and rationally under-
stand this interaction and (b) a rational as well as factual understanding of
the proceedings as a whole. Under Pate v. Robinson (1966), a defendant has
a due process right under the Sixth Amendment to a judicial hearing when
there is sufficient doubt about his or her competence to stand trial.
The Supreme Court elaborated on the procedural protection established
in Pate v. Robinson (1966) in Drope v. Missouri (1974) by explaining that
evidence of a defendant’s irrational behavior, demeanor at trial, and prior
medical opinion regarding competence are all relevant in determining
whether a defendant’s current competency status should be reviewed. Once
the bar against trying an incompetent defendant was established, the
Supreme Court further declared that a defendant found incompetent and
subsequently committed to an institution to restore competency can only be
held for a reasonable time period (Jackson v. Indiana, 1972). This decision
prevented a state from institutionalizing defendants for an indefinite period
of time based solely on their competency status. Later decisions by the
Supreme Court addressed procedural protections such as forced medica-
tion, burden of proof, and other legal standards (e.g., see Cooper v. Oklahoma,
1996; Godinez v. Moran, 1993; Medina v. California, 1992; Riggins v.
, 1992).
The psychological community has studied extensively the ability to
assess an individual’s competency to stand trial (e.g., see Applebaum &
Appelbaum, 1994; Grisso, 1986; McKee, 1998; Robbins, Waters, & Her-
bert, 1997; Rosenfeld & Ritchie, 1998). Many or most individuals referred
for a competency evaluation have been diagnosed with a variety of disorders
including depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder, substance abuse, men-
tal retardation, and psychotic disorder (Appelbaum & Appelbaum, 1994;
Johnson, Nicholson, & Service, 1990; McKee, 1998; Nicholson & Johnson,
1991; Ohayon, Crocker, St-Onge, & Caulet, 1998; Poythress et al., 1998;
Siegel & Elwork, 1990; Ustad, Rogers, Sewell, & Guarnaccia, 1996). How-
ever, the research and most treatment efforts often fail to differentiate
between incompetent, developmentally delayed criminal defendants who
are mentally ill from those who are not. Similarly, screening criteria gener-
ally are based on symptomology consistent with mental illness and not
developmental disability. As noted by Everington and Luckasson (1989),
treatment services designed for the two types of psychological disorders are
not consistent. Most programs rely on medication and group therapy to
restore competency (Everington & Luckasson, 1989).
Criminal defendants who are adjudicated incompetent due to mental ill-
ness may indeed respond to the medication and/or psychotherapy in an

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effort to restore competence. However, for developmentally delayed indi-
viduals the challenge is not to restore competence but rather to instill it.
Whereas mental illness can (arguably) be controlled if not cured, develop-
mental disability cannot. The effects of a developmental disability on daily
living or social competency can be reduced and managed (Forness &
Kavale, 1993). However, research has shown that training can improve
developmentally delayed individuals’ habilitation or daily living skills (as
opposed to rehabilitation) (Everington & Luckasson, 1989), as well as
improving their performance on learning and memory tasks (Forness &
Kavale, 1993). Rehabilitation attempts to restore or improve skills and
behaviors to an individual. It is not possible to restore something that was
never present. Everington and Luckasson (1989) suggested modifying
treatment programs to include habilitation components for developmen-
tally disabled individuals. These components should be taught by specially
trained educators well versed in identifying the needs of the developmen-
tally disabled and providing the necessary skills to instill competency to this
As noted in Siegel and Elwork (1990), judicial deference to mental health
professionals in establishing competence to stand trial results in relying on
mental health treatment rather than education toward competence to stand
trial per se. Even the American Psychological Association (APA, 1994)
contributed to the problem by diagnosing developmentally disabled indi-
viduals (i.e., borderline intelligence, mild, moderate, and profound mental
retardation) with an AXIS-II mental illness in the fourth edition of the Diag-
nostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(DSM-IV). Consistent
with the concern for appropriateness of specialized training for develop-

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