Research: Juveniles may be more inclined to make false confessions

Several factors make juveniles more vulnerable to false confessions, and compounding the issue, authorities often treat juvenile suspects just like adults.

Research shows that the still-developing juvenile brain, which frequently causes emotional and impulsive behavior, can make teenagers in Manassas more likely to engage in criminal activity. However, this isn't the only adverse effect that teen behavior and brain development can have during criminal justice proceedings. Research also shows that, due to these same factors, teenagers are significantly more likely to give false confessions than adults.

Alarming false confession rates

According to The Wall Street Journal, one database of 1,155 exonerations shows that false confessions are a much more common factor in juvenile exonerations than in adult exonerations. Altogether, 11 percent of the wrongfully convicted adults included in the database gave false confessions. In contrast, 38 percent of the juveniles in the database admitted to offenses that they didn't commit.

These juveniles are not typically confessing to trivial crimes, either. According to Pacific Standard Magazine, another review of juvenile exonerations found that about 42 percent involved false confessions. An alarming 69 percent of these confessions were for serious sexual or violent criminal offenses, such as rape or murder.

Why do juveniles confess?

The factors that make juveniles more likely to give false confessions are diverse. The Innocence Project notes that the following variables typically play a role in false confessions:

  • Misunderstandings about personal rights, consequences of confessing or the general situation
  • Fatigue, intoxication or other mental states that diminish judgment and understanding
  • Threats of adverse outcomes, such as harsh sentencing, if a confession is not given

Juveniles may be highly susceptible to these factors, and they may also give false confessions due to personal characteristics. According to the same source, juveniles can often be manipulated more easily than adults. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal states that juveniles are more inclined to cooperate with authority figures or focus solely on short-term benefits of confessing, such as ending the interrogation. All of these factors can make juveniles more likely to confess despite being innocent.

Limited legal understanding

Exacerbating this issue, adolescents who have been accused of juvenile criminal offenses often fail to exercise their legal rights, perhaps due to lack of understanding of those rights. As an example, Pacific Standard Magazine states that one study of juvenile interrogations found that about nine out of ten teens chose to waive the right to remain silent. Many teenagers also declined to exercise their right to speak to an attorney.

Problematic police policies

Unfortunately, law enforcement authorities might not always take the tendency of juveniles to give false confessions into account during interrogation procedures. One University of Virginia survey found that the majority of authorities interrogate juveniles and adults in the same manner. Only about one in five police officers receive training to understand how the psychology and behavior of juveniles differs from that of adults.

Furthermore, numerous Virginia police agencies lack best-practice custodial interrogation policies, according to The Washington Post. The majority of the state's agencies do not officially require the recording of these interrogations, which can make uncovering false confessions more challenging. Additionally, about one-third of the agencies have not created written policies regarding interrogation protocols.

Securing help

Together, all of these factors can leave juveniles in Virginia at significant risk of making false confessions. It's important for both adolescents and their families to appreciate this danger. Seeking the advice of a criminal defense attorney, who can explain a person's legal rights and potential options, may be beneficial for anyone who faces juvenile criminal charges.