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The serious problem of juvenile suspects and false confessions

Some of our previous posts have focused on the troubling issue of wrongful conviction. Of the many mistakes and investigative errors that lead to wrongful conviction, one of the most common is false confession. This is a particularly high risk among juveniles.

It’s important to keep in mind that false confessions are almost never given unprompted. Usually, innocent suspects “confess” to a crime because they have been intimidated, lied to, tricked or even physically assaulted by law enforcement officials. When their supposed confessions are used against them in court, juries rarely hear the circumstances under which defendants “confessed.”

There are many reasons why juveniles are more likely to give false confessions. When we are young, most of us view all adults as authority figures. Young suspects might not understand that lying during a police investigation has much greater consequences than lying to a teacher or a parent. Moreover, juveniles are more likely than adults to pursue short-term goals without considering the long-term consequences. A teenager may falsely confess in an attempt to end a long and stressful interrogation session.

Teenagers and other juvenile offenders also may not understand their rights as a suspect. In one study where researchers examined more than 300 interrogations of juveniles, about 90 percent of suspects agreed to waive their Miranda rights. These include the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, among others.

Finally, juveniles may be likely to give false confessions for the same reasons that some adults do. In recent years, studies have shown that the most common interrogation techniques are not very effective at getting to the truth of a matter or helping officers differentiate between truth and lies. They primarily serve to frighten suspects, which does not necessarily make them more likely to answer honestly.

Even if wrongfully convicted offenders are later acquitted, they may have spent a decade or more in prison before this happens (if it happens at all). The consequences of false confessions are simply too high, and the criminal justice system needs to address this problem sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, anyone who has been arrested, detained or asked to come in for questioning should never be without a criminal defense attorney by their side. As Miranda rights warn: “Anything you say can and will be used against you.”

Source: Pacific Standard, "How Can We Prevent False Confessions From Kids and Teenagers?" Lauren Kirchner, June 17, 2014

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