Research: Juveniles at heightened risk for making false confessions

Juveniles are known for acting impetuously and sometimes showing questionable judgment. These characteristics can predispose young people in Redwood City to make decisions that are short-sighted, unsafe or even unlawful. Unfortunately, these traits can also raise the risk that innocent juveniles who face false accusations of criminal activity will confess to crimes they never committed.

Impulsive decisions

The Wall Street Journal reports that juveniles tend to be more focused on short-term outcomes and more likely to make impulsive decisions that have harmful long-term effects. Adolescents may focus mainly on immediate potential outcomes of making a false confession, such as going home. Juveniles also may be inclined to accommodate authorities and simply go along with what they say.

Similarly, the Innocence Project notes that juveniles who have been arrested may not understand or appreciate the gravity of the situation. Adolescents are also more susceptible to manipulation, which may take many forms during an interrogation, from leading questions to threats.

Alarming findings

Statistics support the assertion that juveniles are more likely to make false confessions. One study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2008 states that just 10 percent of juveniles exercise their Miranda rights. Even if a parent or other adult is present to support and guide the juvenile, the risk of false confessions is rarely mitigated, since adults frequently tell adolescents to cooperate, rather than maintain their innocence.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a database of 1,155 exonerations that occurred during the 25 years prior to 2011 shows that false confessions among youth are not uncommon. False confessions played a role in just 11 percent of adult exonerations that were reviewed, compared to 38 percent of juvenile exonerations. It is important for juveniles, parents and law enforcement authorities to recognize this steep risk.

Reducing risk factors

A number of law enforcement tactics may increase the likelihood of a person making a false confession. According to the Innocence Project, threats of violence, harsh sentences or other consequences of maintaining innocence may cause people to make false confessions. Interrogations conducted when a person is intoxicated, exhausted or otherwise incapacitated can also result in false confessions. The effects of these tactics may be especially pronounced during juvenile interrogations.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2010, the International Association of Chiefs of Police identified several best practices that could reduce the risk of juvenile false confessions. These include:

  • Recording every interrogation
  • Keeping interrogations reasonably short
  • Avoiding suggestive questions and false or misleading statements
  • Making no mention of the more lenient punishments a confession may result in

Even when police avoid practices that are known to raise the risk of false confessions, though, juveniles may be at a higher risk, simply due to the way their developing brains make them process the situation and the potential consequences. This makes it essential that juveniles have access to qualified advice and proper juvenile defense during the interrogation process.

Juveniles facing criminal charges in California should speak with an attorney before speaking to authorities or making any decisions about how to respond to the charges.