Georgia Court Competence Test

The evaluation of competence to stand trial is by far the most common forensic evaluation conducted. It has been estimated that there are between 24,000 and 60,000 of these evaluations carried out across the United States each year. This article describes the Georgia Court Competence Test (GCCT), an instrument used to assess competence to stand trial. The GCCT may best be used as a screening instrument at institutions that process numerous defendants each day. In this role, the GCCT can direct services to individuals who are showing clear signs that they may be incompetent to stand trial at that time. For the assessment of competence to stand trial during a criminal proceeding, however, a much more comprehensive evaluation is necessary.

In the landmark case of Dusky v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court (USSC) established the legal standard for competence to stand trial. The USSC stated that “the test will be whether [the defendant] has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and whether he has a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” The court did not define the procedure for determining competence, and as a result, mental health professionals assess this construct in a variety of ways, including the use of forensic assessment instruments—for example, the GCCT. The current version of the GCCT is a 21-item interview that assesses a defendant’s knowledge of very basic information related to competence to stand trial. Although the test has been available for 27 years, research on the measure is limited, and recently, it was recommended that it be used only as a checklist to identify potential areas of concern.

In all evaluations of competence to stand trial, the defendant is required to answer questions related to the trial process. Defendants’ ability to communicate with counsel, to understand their legal proceeding and their role as a defendant, and to make relevant legal decisions are areas that are investigated. Research conducted over the past 20 years has demonstrated that these issues are best evaluated when one or more standardized measures of competence to stand trial are included in the evaluative process. One such measure is the GCCT, created in 1980 by Robert W. Wildman and colleagues.

The initial version of the GCCT consisted of 17 items and was developed as a screening instrument that would differentiate defendants who were clearly competent from those who required further evaluation. The instrument requires approximately 10 minutes to administer and score and is conducted in an interview format. The most recent version of the GCCT, known as the Mississippi State Hospital Revision (GCCT-MSH), consists of 21 questions that fall into three broad domains: (1) knowledge of the courtroom and legal proceedings, (2) knowledge of current charges and associated penalties, and (3) relationship with counsel. Like the original measures, the GCCT-MSH is accompanied by a pictorial representation of the courtroom, on which the defendant is asked to identify where courtroom personnel will sit during the trial. The measure is scored out of 100 (raw score multiplied by 2), and the recommended cut score is 69 or below; defendants who score in this range are recommended for further evaluation.

Research conducted on the GCCT-MSH has been limited, but that which is available suggests that the measure has good interrater reliability, has good internal consistency, and can be effective as a checklist to identify potential deficits in functional abilities. Three studies have looked at the factor structure of the GCCT-MSH, and the findings have indicated a lack of stability; consequently, the exact domains that are assessed by GCCT-MSH are not clear.

Much of the commentary regarding the utility of the GCCT-MSH relates to the narrow focus of the measure, specifically the almost exclusive focus on foundational competence (e.g., the ability to understand the purpose and process of the criminal proceedings) to the near exclusion of decisional competencies (e.g., knowledge of the legal options, capacity to engage in rational deliberations regarding legal strategy). Numerous scholars have discussed the relative importance of decisional competencies over foundational competencies, and they contend that foundational competence does not adequately capture what is required to demonstrate competence. Instead, they argue that it is the defendants’ ability to function within the context of their own legal proceedings that is of paramount importance.

In addition to the narrow focus of the measure, concerns regarding the face validity of the GCCT-MSH have been raised and addressed in the literature. In 1995, Shayna Gothard and colleagues created the Atypical Presentation Scale to the GCCT-MSH. This scale is composed of 8 items that are scored on a 3-point scale (0 = no,1 = qualified yes,2 = definite yes). In the original study, scores of 6 or higher suggested atypical responding and the need for a more comprehensive evaluation of malingered incompetence. A more recent study indicated that the original cut score was too stringent, and it was suggested that the cut score be lowered to 3 or higher, or perhaps even 1 or higher.

The utility of the GCCT-MSH is limited to screening for possible concerns regarding the competence of the defendant. Although a cut score of 69 has been the recommendation for a further evaluation of competence to stand trial, this score should never be used as the sole criterion for such a determination. Like all forensic assessment instruments, the GCCT-MSH plays a small and unique role in the comprehensive evaluation of a defendant.

References:

  1. Bonnie, R. (1992). The competency of criminal defendants: A theoretical reformulation. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 10, 291-316.
  2. Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960).
  3. Gothard, S., Rogers, R., & Sewell, K. W. (1995). Feigning incompetency to stand trial: An investigation of the GCCT. Law and Human Behavior, 19, 363-373.
  4. Rogers, R., Ustad, K. L., Sewell, K. W., & Reinhart, (1996). Dimensions of incompetency: A factor analytic study of the Georgia Court Competency Test. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 14, 323-330.

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