Juveniles more likely to make false confessions, experts say

False confessions happen far more often than many people would expect, particularly among young defendants - and the consequences are all too often disastrous. A growing body of research is beginning to shed new light on this strange phenomenon and its causes, which could eventually be used to develop new ways of helping to protect defendants from the risk of wrongful conviction.

Juveniles more likely to make false confessions

According to the Wall Street Journal, which recently published a report on false confessions by juveniles, children and teenagers are more likely than adults to make false confessions when accused of a crime. The problem of false confessions by juvenile defendants is so widespread that the United States Supreme Court has even acknowledged the issue. In 2011, the Court noted in a written opinion that research suggests the risk of false confession during interrogation is "more acute" among juveniles than adults.

At the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, a new database is being created to track criminal exonerations in the United States. The database currently contains information about 1,155 people who have been wrongfully convicted and later those convictions thrown out. In the past 25 years, according to the database, 11 percent of adults with post-conviction exonerations had made false confessions. Among exonerated people under the age of 18, the number of cases involving false confessions was far higher at 38 percent, the Journal reported.

False confession risk factors

The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to assisting wrongfully convicted prisoners pursue exoneration through DNA evidence, identifies several factors that may cause people of all ages to confess to crimes they did not commit. These include:

  • Duress, violence or the use of coercive tactics by interrogators.
  • Fear of physical harm.
  • Misunderstanding of the situation.
  • Ignorance of the law.
  • Intoxication, impairment or diminished mental capacity.

Whether due to fear, exhaustion, confusion or other factors, the Innocence Project explains that false confessions typically occur when a person being interrogated reaches the conclusion that they will benefit more from confessing than from continuing to maintain their innocence.

Juveniles may be more likely to offer false confessions because young people tend to be more vulnerable to manipulation during the interrogation process than adults and are less likely to understand their rights. In addition, experts say, juveniles are often more impulsive and focused on short-term goals, such as ending the interrogation, without regard for the long-term consequences. Young defendants often confess to crimes they did not commit in the hopes that it will allow them to go home, often believing that they will be able to prove their innocence later.

Protecting the legal rights of juveniles

Unfortunately, despite growing public awareness that people can and do confess to crimes they did not commit, overcoming a false confession can still be extremely difficult.

To protect young people from the risk of false confessions and their potentially life-altering consequences, it is important to get help from a lawyer right away if a child or teenager is arrested or questioned in connection to a criminal offense. An attorney with experience in juvenile defense matters can advocate on behalf of the juvenile at every stage of the investigation and prosecution to ensure that he or she is treated fairly, and will advocate tirelessly on the young person's behalf to help provide best possible chance of a positive outcome.

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