By: Madelyn Cox-Guerra*
The landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Miranda v. Arizona, established the requirement that a person be read their constitutional rights upon being taken into custody by law enforcement.1 In re Gault expanded Miranda to juveniles.2 Miranda warnings apply to juveniles, but in reviewing whether the warning was sufficient, the age of the juvenile can be specifically considered to determine whether the juvenile was “in custody.”3 Beyond this, juveniles have few special protections for their Miranda rights. The minimal protections of Miranda warnings for juveniles exposes this already vulnerable population to additional pressure to give false confessions. This blog analyzes the reasons why juveniles are likely to give false confessions, and then evaluates the proposed solutions to protecting Miranda warnings to prevent juvenile false confessions.
Causes of Juvenile False Confessions
Juveniles are more likely to give false confessions than adults. Based on a study of 328 exoneration cases, 42% of juveniles had given false confessions, but only 13% of adults had given false confessions.4 This seems to indicate that juveniles are uniquely vulnerable to giving false confessions, which makes sense because children are generally less capable than adults at preserving their own interests. Numerous psychological studies establish that police interrogation techniques are especially impactful on juveniles.
Barry C. Feld provided “the first systematic quantitative and qualitative data – interrogation tapes and transcripts, police reports, juvenile court filings, and probation and sentencing reports – about how police question juveniles.”5 This study examines the use of various interrogation techniques. One technique closely tied to false confessions is the use of fake evidence in the interrogation to challenge the suspect’s statements. Another study noted that police used “false evidence” of guilt to confront suspects in about 30% of interrogations, “false evidence” including evidence entirely made-up and evidence that does exist but was embellished.6
Several psychological studies on youth indicate that use of fake incriminating evidence during interrogation is likely to induce false confessions. In 1996, Kassin and Kiechel performed a study in which they required children to type on a computer, with special instructions that hitting the “alt” button would cause the computer to crash and data to be lost.7 Despite not hitting the “alt” button, the computers would crash, and adults would confront students stating they pressed the button and caused the data loss.8 Despite not hitting the “alt” button, 69% of the children were willing to sign a statement confirming they caused the computer crash which resulted in the loss of data.9 Redlich and Goodman repeated the study with varying age groups. They found that, predictably, younger children were more likely to sign the confession than older children: 78% of the 12–13 year olds signed the confession, compared to 72% of the 15–16 year olds and 59% of the college students.10
Juveniles waive their Miranda rights 80–90% of the time.11 This is likely because they do not fully understand their Miranda rights and have no attorney present to help protect their legal interests. Waiving of Miranda rights prevents juveniles from requesting an attorney to be present during the interrogation, thus allowing law enforcement officers to use manipulative interrogation methods that can induce false confessions. False confessions are especially devastating because they often lead to guilty verdicts even after the confession is retracted; juries still convicted 81% of individuals who retracted their false confession and plead not-guilty.12
In the status quo, juveniles are expected to be responsible for their own legal interests despite being unable to understand those interests, and juveniles are left vulnerable to giving false confessions. Various solutions have been proposed to secure juveniles’ comprehension of their Miranda rights.
Solutions to Juvenile False Confessions
- Higher Competency Standard
Firstly, advocates promote a higher standard of competency for the comprehension of Miranda rights. Most states rely on the totality of the circumstances test developed in Dickerson v. United States13 to determine whether juveniles were sufficiently Mirandized. Yet certain states have advanced a standard that requires suspects to both understand and appreciate their Miranda rights.14 This means that, “instead of simply understanding that they have the right to counsel… suspects must appreciate why being able to remain silent or speak to an attorney could be important.”15
In their 2000 study, Bonnie and Grisso argued that juveniles tried in juvenile court do not need to actually understand their Miranda rights, and instead only need a “‘basic understanding of the purpose of proceedings’ and an ability to ‘communicate rationally with counsel.’”16 Viljoen, Zapf, and Roesch followed-up on this study and analyzed the various competency legal standards applied by juvenile courts against the competency in comprehending Miranda rights of 152 defendants from 11- to 17-years-old using Grisso’s Miranda Instruments and the Fitness Interview Test-Revised.17 The Basic Understanding and Communication standard is a demonstrably lower competency standard than the adult competency standard. Viljoen et al.18 found that “defendants aged 15 and under had significantly higher rates of impairment on the Basic Understanding and Communication Standard than defendants aged 16–17” and “significantly fewer defendants were classified as impaired on the Basic Understanding and Communication Standard than on the Adult Standard.”19
Other juvenile advocates would require a higher standard of competency such as the understanding and appreciation of Miranda warnings. Viljoen et al. found that a competency standard requiring understanding and appreciation of Miranda rights is a higher standard of competency because ““while over half of defendants aged 15 and under were classified as impaired in their comprehension of Miranda rights when both understanding and appreciation of Miranda rights were required, significantly fewer youth were classified as being impaired when only understanding was required.”20 Younger defendants were, predictably, less competent: “78% of defendants aged 11–13 and 63% of those aged 14–15 were impaired on one or more of the measures.”21
- Simplified Miranda Warning Language
Proponents argue that the complex legal language used in the Miranda warning is unfamiliar to juveniles and does not make their rights clear to them. The language is such that “to understand the standard language in a Miranda warning, suspects need a reading level varying between 6th and 10th grade, or higher.”24 The illiteracy rate for prison inmates is 75%,25 and more than 60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate.26 Further, “85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.”27 Literacy should be evaluated as a competency factor, but some courts neglect to do so. For instance, in People v. Gonzalez, an Illinois appellate court held that a 16-year-old boy with a third-grade reading level, tried as an adult, was competent because “mental deficiency of itself does not render a statement involuntary.”28
- Requirement that Parent or Counsel be Present During Questioning
Thirdly, advocates have proposed that juveniles only be questioned with an interested adult, like a parent or guardian, present.29 A minority of states, including Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Washington, have statutes requiring the presence of legal counsel or parents for a juvenile to waive their Miranda rights.30
However, adults, while much more competent in understanding Miranda rights than juveniles, are still often lacking in their comprehension.31 In fact, “parents… may have limited legal understanding themselves and they may encourage their child to confess.”32
Some advocates propose that attorneys should have to be present in order for a juvenile to waive their Miranda rights,33 yet abusive interrogation techniques could have been used prior to getting the attorney in the room and have already taken effect on the suspect. Due to this, it would be much more beneficial to require legal counsel to be present during all questioning and interrogation of a juvenile. Attorneys would also be able to explain the Miranda rights in simplified language and are more likely than police officers to ensure suspects comprehend their rights since attorneys represent the interests of their clients. This would also eliminate Miranda competency issues since there would be an attorney present during the interrogation.
The drawbacks of this solution are that, in order to be functional, there must be plenty of juvenile defense attorneys present to provide aid for all juvenile questioning, and these attorneys must be financially provided for by the state. There would certainly be an increase in state costs to fund public defenders. With the dire state of public defender funds in most states,34 the cost would be a significant hurdle to implementing this solution.
That being said, the lack of funding for public defender offices across the county demonstrates an intersecting aberration in the criminal justice system. It is worthwhile to promote and pursue this solution while understanding the lack of resources for public defenders is an ongoing systemic barrier to justice.
Due to the extremely high rate at which juveniles waive their Miranda rights and provide false confessions, preventing false confessions using Miranda rights is best done by requiring the presence of counsel during all law enforcement questioning of juveniles.
* J.D. Candidate, University of Minnesota Law School Class of 2023, JLI Vol. 41 Lead Online Editor
- Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). ↵
- In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). ↵
- J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011). ↵
- S. Gross, K. Jacoby, D. Matheson, N. Montgomery, & S. Patil, Exonerations in the United States 1989 through 2003, 95 J. of Crim. L. and Criminology 523 (2005). ↵
- Barry C. Feld, Police Interrogation of Juveniles: An Empirical Study of Policy and Practice, 97 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 219, 222–223 (2006). ↵
- Richard A. Leo, Inside the Interrogation Room, 86 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 266, 279 (1996). ↵
- Saul M. Kassin & Katherine L. Kiechel, The Social Psychology of False Confessions: Compliance, Internalization, and Confabulation, 7 Psychol. Sci. 125 (1996), available at http://web.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kassin/files/kassin kiechel 1996.pdf. ↵
- Id. ↵
- Id. at 127. ↵
- Allison D. Redlich & Gail S. Goodman, Taking Responsibility for an Act Not Committed: The Influence of Age and Suggestibility, 27 Law & Hum. Behav. 141, 150–151 (1996). ↵
- Judith B. Jones, Access to Counsel, Juv. Just. Bull. (U.S. Dep’t of Just., Off. of Juv. Just. & Delinq. Prevention, Washington, D.C.), June 2004, at 2, available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/204063.pdf. ↵
- Steven A. Drizin & Richard A. Leo, The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World, 82 N.C. L. Rev. 891, 963 (2004). ↵
- Dickerson v. U.S., 530 U.S. 428 (2000). ↵
- In re Patrick W., 163 Cal. Rptr. 3d. 848 (Cal. Ct. App. 1978). ↵
- Jodi L. Viljoen, Patricia A. Zapf & Ronald Roesch, Adjudicative Competence and Comprehension of Miranda Rights in Adolescent Defendants: A Comparison of Legal Standards, 25 Behav.. Sci. & L. 1, 2 (2007). ↵
- R.J. Bonnie & T. Grisso, Adjudicative Competence and Youthful Offenders, in Youth on Trial: A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice 73, 103, 28 (University of Chi. Press, T. Grisso & R.G. Schwartz eds., 2000); Viljoen et al., supra note 15, at 12. ↵
- Viljoen et al., supra note 15, at 1. ↵
- Viljoen et al. determined whether individuals in the study met the competency standards by assigning each competency standard a score determined by the composite results of the study. While this provides an objective standard through which to measure performance on Grisso’s Miranda Instruments and the Fitness Interview Test-Reviewed, courts are not applying these mathematical values as standards of competency in court. Thus, I find their conclusions predicting that youth are more likely to be deemed incompetent by courts applying the adult competency standard to be overstated. ↵
- Id. at 12. ↵
- Id. at 1. ↵
- Id. at 14. ↵
- The American Bar Association passed a resolution in February 2010 promoting that the federal, state, territory, and local governments support the use of simplified Miranda warnings for juveniles. See https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/resources/attorneys/simplified_mirandawarningsforjuveniles/. ↵
- Laurel LaMontagne, Children Under Pressure: The Problem of Juvenile False Confessions and Potential Solutions, 41 W. St. U. L. Rev. 29, 53 (2013). Laurel LaMontagne promotes the following simplified Miranda language, which requires just a third grade reading level: “The police want to ask you some questions. You do not have to talk with them. You do not have to answer their questions. They can use anything you say in trying to figure out if you did something that was against the law. If you do not want to talk with the police, you will not get in trouble for being quiet. If you would like an adult to help you decide what to do, you can have your parents here. You can also have a lawyer. A lawyer is someone who is trained in helping you make the best decision for you. This will not cost you any money. If you want to talk to the police, you can stop answering their questions whenever you want. Do you understand what I have just told you? What would you like to do?” ↵
- Id. at 40 (citing Richard Rogers et al., Development and Initial Validation of the Miranda Vocabulary Scale, 33 Law & Hum. Behav. 381, 386–388 (2009); see also Jeffrey L. Helms, Analysis of Miranda Reading Levels Across Jurisdictions: Implications for Evaluating Waiver Competency, J. Forensic Psychol. Prac. 25, 29–34 (2003); see also Rogers et al., The Language of Miranda Warnings in American Jurisdictions: A Replication and Vocabulary Analysis, 32 Law & Hum. Behav. 124 (2008)). ↵
- E. Herrick, Prison Literacy Connection, 16 Corrections Compendium 12, 1 (1991). ↵
- Literary Statistics, Begin to Read, available at https://www.begintoread.com/research/literacystatistics.html. ↵
- Id. ↵
- People v. Gonzalez, 351 Ill. App. 3d 192 (2nd Dist. Ct. of App. 2004). ↵
- Viljoen et al., supra note 15, at 14–15. ↵
- LaMontagne, supra note 23, at 52–53 (2013); Viljoen et al., supra note 15, at 14–15. ↵
- Aishani Eggenberger-Lipschitz, Miranda Rights Comprehension and Advice to Juveniles, available at https://scholar.utc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1817&context=theses. ↵
- Viljoen et al., supra note 15, at 14–15. ↵
- LaMontagne, supra note 23, at 52. ↵
- Phil McCausland, Public Defenders Nationwide Say They’re Overworked and Underfunded, NBC News (Dec. 11, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/public-defenders-nationwide-say-they-re-overworked-underfunded-n828111; Public Defenders Say Fair Trials in Jeopardy Due to Underfunding, ACLU Kansas (May 20, 2021), https://www.aclukansas.org/en/publications/public-defenders-say-fair-trials-jeopardy-due-underfunding; Teresa Wiltz, Public Defenders Fight Back Against Budget Cuts, Growing Caseloads, PEW (Nov. 21, 2017), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/11/21/public-defenders-fight-back-against-budget-cuts-growing-caseloads. ↵