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Why would a juvenile confess to a crime he or she did not commit?

When an individual who is accused of committing a crime subsequently confesses to committing the crime, it seems likely he or she is guilty. Research indicates, however, this frequently isn’t the case in a large percentage of confessions involving juvenile offenders.

In a 2006 report, researchers examined cases involving the exonerations of individuals who confessed to committing crimes while they were juveniles. In cases examined from 1989 to 2004, researchers determined "that 42 percent of exonerations of juveniles involved false confessions at the time of the crime."

Juvenile offenders who are convicted of misdemeanor or felony crimes often face serious penalties including time spent in a juvenile detention center or jail and strict probation restrictions. In some states, children as young as 10 or 12 who are convicted of committing certain crimes may be tried as adults and could face a lifetime prison sentence. Given the stringent penalties associated with a criminal conviction; why would a boy or girl who is 12, 14 or 16 admit to committing a crime that he or she did not commit?

Research indicates that a lack of comprehension and understanding regarding one's rights as well as the interrogation tactics commonly employed by police investigators play a major role in many false confessions involving juveniles. A survey that was conducted by a university researcher found that out of 178 police officers, the vast majority use the "same interrogation techniques on minors as adults." When questioning a juvenile suspect, officers often try to build trust by saying things like, I'm on your side or it's important that you tell your side of the story now.

In addition to interrogation tactics, young juveniles often don't know what Miranda rights are and older juveniles often don’t' understand the significance of Miranda rights. As a consequence, data collected from 300 cases involving juvenile suspects found that approximately 270 waived their Miranda rights and opted to speak to a police officer before retaining counsel.

Many police officers admit to wanting more training on how to effectively question juvenile suspects and there's been a push to pass federal legislation that would require police departments to videotape interrogations involving juveniles. However, until these and other protective measures are put in place, many more children will continue to be locked up for crimes they did not commit.

Source: Pacific Standard, "How Can We Prevent False Confessions From Kids and Teenagers?," Lauren Kirchner, June 17, 2014

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