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. The problem is particularly acute for youth of color. Although youth of all races commit offenses at roughly the same rates, African American, 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.
Ava Duvernay’s stunning new Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, shows the devastating impact of coercive interrogations of youth by tracing the story of the Central Park Five, wrongfully convicted following illegal interrogations. Unfortunately, despite some legal progress, the problem of coerced, wrongful confessions of youth persists.
Miranda and the Adolescent Brain
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.” Adolescents waive their Miranda rights at an astounding rate of 90% and make false confessions at exponentially higher rates than adults.
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.
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?
- State policies 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.
- We need to address over-policing in communities of color, and we need to stem the school-to-prison pipeline. Most school-based misconduct can be handled by school administrators, rather than law enforcement.