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Study suggests that teen suspects do not understand their rights

As an adult, your idea of what constitutes an authority figure is probably more nuanced than it was when you were a kid. Children tend to view most adults as authority figures, including parents, teachers and police. As such, most children and teenagers probably don’t understand that the consequences of being interrogated by a police officer are much more significant than being grilled by a parent or teacher.

An increasing body of research continues to show that juvenile offenders need all of the legal help they can get when being interrogated by law enforcement. This is because most do not understand their rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Moreover, juvenile offenders are often unable to grasp the long-term consequences of a false confession and many do not realize that police officers can and do lie during interrogations.

A recent study examined 57 videotaped interrogations of teenage suspects from police departments around the country. All suspects were between 13 and 17 years old. Even with this small sample size, some disturbing patterns were noticeable. Of the 57 suspects interrogated:

  • 37 percent made what appear to be full confessions (true or otherwise)
  • 31 percent made statements that were incriminating
  • Not a single suspect left the interrogation, despite the fact that they were free to do so
  • Not a single suspect had an attorney by his or her side, even though they had the right to one

Brain research has shown that adolescents have a very difficult time prioritizing long-term gains over short-term ones. Therefore, one psychologist explains, “The police often promise kids things in the present. ‘If you just tell me you did it, you can go see your mom.’ And because the brain’s reward systems are hypersensitive during adolescence, that immediate reward of confessing will trump the thinking of, ‘What will happen when I come back to court in a month?’”

If you fear that your son or daughter could ever be in legal trouble, it is crucial to make sure that they understand their rights as a suspect. They should always have an attorney by their side before answering any questions during an interrogation.

Criminal charges can compromise a teenager’s future, and a conviction could destroy it. As such, teens need as much legal advocacy as possible whenever they are accused or suspected of a crime.

Source: The New York Times, “In Interrogations, Teenagers Are Too Young to Know Better,” Jan Hoffman, Oct. 13, 2014

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