Youth Interrogations & Access to Counsel

Since 1967, youth have had a constitutional right to counsel during juvenile court proceedings. In In re Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that youth need the “guiding hand of counsel” to assist them in court, and the court must appoint an attorney if the child cannot afford one. Still today, too many youth in juvenile court are pressured to appear without counsel. Even when young people are represented, attorneys often lack the resources to provide adequate representation. Youth in the child welfare system do not have an equivalent constitutional right. Only 32 states statutorily require some form legal representation for youth in abuse and neglect cases.

Youth need qualified and zealous attorneys who will advocate on their behalf, demand fair treatment, and hold both of these systems accountable.

Representation in Court Matters

Even when youth do have attorneys, heavy caseloads and sparse resources often prevent counsel from providing the high-quality, individualized and holistic representation young people need and deserve. Without high quality representation, youth who appear in juvenile court may be unjustly found delinquent, incarcerated, or even be transferred to adult court, and young people in the child welfare system may be pulled from their families, separated from siblings, or otherwise face harmful child welfare involvement.

Youth Interrogations

Any young person facing a police interrogation has the legal right to ask for a lawyer before answering questions.

Youth have faced coercive police interrogation tactics for decades. Although youth of all races commit offenses at roughly the same rates, Black, Latinx, and Native American youth are arrested at much higher rates than their white counterparts, and therefore are at particularly high risk of facing police interrogations and coercion.

Miranda and the Adolescent Brain Adolescents waive their Miranda rights at an astounding rate of 90% and make false confessions at exponentially higher rates than adults. The law requires courts to take age into account when deciding if a confession is voluntary. Police must also give Miranda warnings any time a “reasonable child” would not feel free to end an interrogation and leave. The standard Miranda warning includes advising individuals that “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you.”

Research on adolescent development and neuroscience explains why youth are uniquely vulnerable to coercive interrogation tactics and why they waive their Miranda rights at such high rates. Teenagers prioritize short-term benefits over long-term consequences and are especially prone to comply with the requests of authority figures like police. During adolescence, the reward-seeking part of the brain is highly active, while the frontal lobe, which governs measured decision-making, is still developing. In communities that have experienced police violence, teenagers may be even more easily coerced into confessing.

A child’s decision to continue an interrogation without counsel or to confess in order to end an interrogation can have devastating consequences. The child’s words may be used against them in court and can lead to a conviction and incarceration.

What Can We Do To Solve The Problem?

· Police presence should be reduced, especially in Black and Brown communities currently subject to heightened surveillance

· Schools should invest in counseling, support, and education, not policing

· State laws should require attorney presence during police interrogations.

· Police should be required to use developmentally appropriate strategies when interrogating youth, relying on open-ended questions rather than trapping them into making incriminating statements.

A Robust Right to Counsel

Young people in the child welfare and justice systems should be represented at every stage of their case. Attorneys representing youth should have specific training on adolescent development and specialized knowledge about juvenile court procedures and the role of race, ethnicity and bias in the court system. Youth need experienced advocates to help them navigate court proceedings, understand their rights, and recognize the short- and long-term consequences of court involvement.

Juvenile Law Center advocates for a robust right to counsel for all youth in the child welfare and justice systems. We also collaborate with national partners to train attorneys for youth in dependency, delinquency, and adult criminal court. We work to ensure that attorneys for youth are directed by their clients and have the expertise needed for effective advocacy, that attorneys are always provided for youth regardless of the child or family income, and that youth cannot waive their right to counsel. These protections ensure that young people get fair treatment in the justice and child welfare systems.



Images: © Richard Ross,

Luzerne "Kids for Cash" Scandal

In 2007, a frantic call from an alarmed parent prompted Juvenile Law Center to investigate irregularities in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County juvenile court. What we found was shocking.

From 2003 to 2008, the Luzerne County judicial corruption scandal altered the lives of more than 2500 children and involved more than 6000 cases. Over 50 percent of the children who appeared before Ciavarella lacked legal representation; 60 percent of these children were removed from their homes.