Data shows juveniles face a heightened risk of false confession
Recent research on false confessions and their consequences has shown that the phenomenon is far more widespread than many people may expect, and that juvenile defendant may be particularly at risk.
The scope of the problem
At the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, in collaboration with the University of Michigan Law School, researchers have established a database known as the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks documented cases of wrongful conviction throughout the United States.
The registry dates back to 1989 and provides detailed information about more than 1,220 exoneration cases – those in which an individual convicted of a crime was later cleared of all charges after new evidence came to light. The cases in the database, however, represent only a small fraction of the wrongful convictions that occur, according to the NRE.
Even people who do succeed in having their convictions overturned usually end up serving a substantial portion of their sentences. According to NRE data, exonerated individuals spend an average of nearly 10 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted.
False confession risk factors for juveniles
Of the wrongful conviction cases tracked by the NRE database, 14 percent involved false confessions – about one in seven. In exoneration cases involving juvenile defendants, however, false confessions are even more likely to be a factor. According to an article published recently by the Wall Street Journal, false confessions have been involved in more than one-third of exoneration cases involving defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes.
Experts in the field say there are several factors that may account for the higher risk of false confessions among juveniles, the Wall Street Journal reported. For instance, teenagers and children are typically more deferential to authority than adults and may be more easily swayed by interrogation tactics designed to manipulate or coerce defendants into incriminating themselves.
In addition, juveniles often have a tendency to act impulsively and may be more likely than adults to focus primarily on short-term objectives like making the interrogation stop, rather than on protecting their long-term interests. Finally, juveniles may be less knowledgeable of their legal rights than adults, and may not understand the potentially life-altering consequences of waiving their rights to silence and legal counsel when accused of a crime.
Protecting kids from self-incrimination
It is important for people of all ages to understand their constitutional rights in order to protect themselves in the event that they are ever questioned by police or arrested in connection to a criminal offense. If you or a loved one is suspected of a crime, remember that you have a right to remain silent and refuse to answer any questions without a criminal defense attorney present.
Although you may feel that you have nothing to hide, it can be very risky to try to explain yourself to investigators on your own, because your statements may be used against you in ways that you never expected. Therefore, be sure to get in touch with a qualified criminal defense lawyer at your earliest opportunity if you or a family member is arrested or questioned by police.