Research highlights problem of teenage false confessions

A study published recently in the journal Law and Human Behavior added to a growing body of research suggesting that teenagers who get into trouble with police are often poorly equipped to protect their interests during questioning. Not only are they less likely than adults to ask for a lawyer or exercise their constitutional right to remain silent, but they are also highly likely to make self-incriminating statements or offer confessions - which in some cases are untrue.

False confession statistics

Even among adults, false confessions are hardly a rarity. Data compiled by the Center for Wrongful Convictions shows that false confessions played a role in approximately one out of every seven exoneration cases - those in which a person is cleared of a charge after he or she was already convicted. Among juvenile defendants, false confessions were even more common, playing a role in more than one-third of exonerations.

Unfortunately for anyone who is convicted as a result of making a false confession, it is extremely difficult and uncommon to succeed in having a conviction overturned. Furthermore, even a successful exoneration case can take years to reach a resolution. According to the CWC, exonerated individuals spend a decade in prison, on average, before their convictions are overturned and they are released.

Because overturning a conviction is rare, difficult and time consuming, it is all the more important to avoid being convicted in the first place. A critical part of minimizing that risk is preventing false confessions, particularly among juveniles and other particularly vulnerable populations. Even for seemingly minor charges, conviction can have long-term repercussions on a young person's educational and employment opportunities, and a false confession leading to conviction of a serious offense such as assault or drug possession could have consequences that last for the rest of his or her life.

Why are teens at risk?

A study published previously in Law and Human Behavior found that the risk of false confession increases the younger a teenager is. Not only are young people often less aware of their legal rights when dealing with police, but their brains are not yet fully developed. As a result, they may be poorly equipped to weigh their options when questioned by police. Compared to adults, teens are more likely to be focused on short-term goals, such as ending the interrogation and going home, rather than on the long-term consequences of their actions - the potential severity of which they may not fully grasp.

Additionally, as psychology professor and juvenile justice scholar Laurence Steinberg told the New York Times, teenagers may be less likely than adults to realize that they are being manipulated by police interrogators. Specifically, he said, they may not be aware that interrogators can lie, and thus may be quick to give in when offered an immediate reward for confessing, such as being allowed to go home or see a parent.

Furthermore, according to research cited in that article, teens are more suggestible than adults, making them more likely to change their answers or say what they believe the interrogators want to hear. Many teens who find themselves being questioned by police make the mistake of confessing because they believe it is the only way out of the situation, thinking they will be able to sort things out later. Unfortunately it is rarely that simple, and many end up paying for that mistake with their futures.

Get legal help if your child is arrested

If your son or daughter has been accused of criminal activity, contacting an experienced criminal defense lawyer - before you or your child talk to the police - is one of the most important steps you can take to help safeguard his or her long-term interests. A lawyer with experience representing juvenile clients can advocate on your child's behalf at all stages of the interrogation and prosecution and will fight hard to see that he or she is treated fairly.