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Do teen suspects understand their constitutional rights?

There are a number of reasons why America has both an adult criminal justice system and a juvenile justice system. There are fundamental differences between adults and adolescents, including their capacity to predict the consequences of their actions and to control their impulses. Brain research has shown that teenagers often lack these important skills while their brains are still developing.

Because juvenile offenders are considered more capable of reform than adults, they are usually given more lenient sentences. Unfortunately, young offenders charged with serious crimes such as murder are often tried as adults. And emerging research shows that these offenders are at risk of getting railroaded by the justice system.

A recent study examined 57 videotaped interrogations involving suspects ranging from 13 to 17 years old. These recordings came from police departments around the country. An analysis of these interrogations strongly suggests that teenagers are in need of special protections because they fundamentally do not understand their rights.

Of the suspects in the 57 interrogations:

  • None left the interrogation despite being free to do so
  • None had a criminal defense lawyer at their side despite having the right to an attorney
  • Approximately 31 percent made incriminating statements
  • Approximately 37 percent made full confessions

Juvenile suspects are often convicted based on a “confession” they supposedly gave during the interrogation. But because teenagers are likely to prioritize immediate rewards while failing to consider long-term consequences, they may give a false confession simply to end the interrogation.

Juveniles are also unlikely to know that police can lie during interrogations. As such, they may end up giving false confessions based on threats from police or promises of leniency if they cooperate.

Study results like these should be a wake-up call to nearly everyone involved in the criminal justice system. Underage suspects need to be treated differently than adults because they are different. They need greater protection and advocacy at all times.

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

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