Juvenile Interrogation Reforms Urged to Curtail False Confessions

The criminal justice system wrongly induces juvenile defendants to waive theirMiranda rights, according to an article by Barry C. Feld, a University of Minnesota law professor.

Juveniles are read the same Miranda rights as adults and have the same ability to waive those rights. Ninety percent of juveniles waive their right to silence in the interrogation room; 80 percent of adults do.

A juvenile is only required to understand the words of the Miranda warnings to make his waiver valid. Multiple studies have proven that those 15 years of age and younger lack the maturity and experience to fully comprehend their rights and the consequences of waiving them.

Feld sees a link between the high percentages of juveniles waiving their right to silence and the overrepresentation of juveniles in the number of false confessions. He attributes this partly to a child’s desire to conform with societal expectations of obedience to authority. Also, the stress of an interrogation can push juveniles to falsely confess and not to understand the consequences of doing so.

Feld also attributes the large number of false confessions to police using the same interrogation techniques—such as aggressive questioning and leading questions—that they use on adults. This is allowed even though the United States Supreme Court recognized in J.D.B. v. North Carolina that juveniles are more susceptible than adults to being coerced into giving false confessions.

Feld proposes three reforms. First, he calls upon state courts and legislators to draw a line between juveniles ages 16-17 and juveniles age 15 and under for waiver of Miranda rights. Juveniles ages 16-17 would be able to waive theirMiranda rights as easily as adults, while juveniles 15 and under would have certain non-waivable Miranda rights. For example, Feld approves the American Bar Association’s call for juveniles to have a non-waivable right to appointment of counsel. Currently, juveniles, like adults, can waive the right to counsel.

Second, Feld would put time limits on interrogations. He cites evidence that longer interrogations are more likely to produce false confessions.

Third, Feld calls for recording all conversations between police and juveniles. Research shows that recordings reduce coercion and increase reliability of confessions.