I Falsely Confess That I Am Up to No Good
Updated: Feb 6
With the increased media attention to criminal cases that include false confessions, you may wonder why a person would admit to something they did not do—particularly, something as heinous as a rape or murder. Unfortunately, false confessions by adolescents are not an uncommon occurrence in the United States; according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 292 people that have been exonerated since 1986 admittedly made false confessions—36% of these exonerees were youths under the age of 18. Yet, this data only accounts for the people who have been exonerated by the National Registry of Exonerations and does not include those who have falsely confessed and are still incarcerated. Also, the true number is likely much higher because minor crimes to which youth falsely confess are usually not investigated. Complicating matters further, the normative developmental changes of adolescence may leave youths more susceptible to making false confessions. As such, this post will examine the present implications of adolescent mental and social development on youths’ susceptibility to making false confessions, as well as how adolescents’ understanding of their legal rights and the interrogative tactics regularly used by police may impact their susceptibility to falsely confessing to a crime they did not commit.
The human brain undergoes significant changes throughout the developmental periods of childhood and adolescence. Indeed, the prefrontal cortex—which is involved in planning, decision-making and understanding consequences and is therefore central to adolescents’ risk-taking behavior—continues to develop from childhood through early adulthood. Further, an increase of white matter in adolescence may account for a shift to more acute and focused functioning in this brain region. This increase in white matter is due to the process of myelination, which begins at the back of the brain and moves forward towards the prefrontal cortex over time. As a result, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last structures to become fully developed–a process that continues into the mid-twenties. However, by mid-adolescence, the limbic system, which is involved in emotions, basic drives and motivation, is already functioning at full capacity. The limbic system contributes to teens’ tendency to crave exciting, sensation-stimulating experiences and can be particularly affected by emotional situations. Therefore, in high-pressure or emotional situations, there is an imbalance between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, which may account for an adolescent’s impulsive behavior. This does not necessarily mean that youth cannot make complicated decisions; however, an emotionally stressful interrogation is not a conducive environment for a youth to weigh important choices.
Adolescence is also a period of social growth, during which youths begin to form their identities and become more autonomous. During this time, youths display a higher need for peer acceptance and a greater reaction to peer rejection—an effect demonstrated by the Cyberball paradigm which shows that adolescents will feel negative effects (e.g., lowered sense of belonging, a less meaningful existence) if they think they are being ostracized in a group activity. To avoid these negative outcomes, youths may feel the need to take the blame for the mistakes or crimes of others to gain their acceptance. Indeed, when youths are presented with a choice to spare a stranger the consequences of cheating, they are more likely to falsely confess than their adult counterparts. Further, 51.5% of juveniles who admitted to falsely confessing to a crime reported that they had taken the fall for someone else. Such findings demonstrate that youths are willing to risk their own wellbeing for the wellbeing of others.
Adolescents’ Perceptions of Rights and Interrogative Practices
The ongoing mental and social development that occurs during adolescence also has an impact on youths’ understanding of their legal rights during interrogation procedures. It has been estimated that over 300,000 youths per year are likely to give up their Miranda rights. Indeed, in mock interviews with incarcerated youth, 69.1% of the youths waived their rights and only 13.8% exercised their right to remain silent or request an attorney. Importantly, youths felt they were more likely to be considered guilty by police if they stayed silent or requested an attorney and thought if they cooperated, they would face a more favorable outcome. Such findings are in line with our understanding of the immaturity of juvenile decision-making—under emotional or potentially threatening situations, adolescents will choose a short-term reward at the expense of thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions. Interrogative techniques used by police may therefore mislead juveniles to believe that if they cooperate, they will not be punished or will receive a lesser sentence.
Police are known to use a variety of tactics when interrogating suspects including befriending (e.g., offering to help the suspect), deceit (e.g., lying to the suspect), insults (e.g., swearing at the suspect), refusals (e.g., refusing breaks during an interrogation), minimization (e.g., downplaying the seriousness of the interrogation), and maximization (e.g., inflating the seriousness of the charge). Some of the tactics used by police in the U.S. are illegal in other countries due to their coercive nature. Alarmingly, studies have demonstrated that youths are more likely to fall victim to these techniques than adults. Notably, youths are more inclined towards making false confessions if they have been denied or refused a break during long interrogation periods and if maximization techniques are used in an interrogation due to their stressful nature. Simply put, an adolescent’s inexperience in the legal system may impact their awareness of interrogation tactics and may lead to the adolescent becoming overwhelmed with pressure and making the impulsive decision to falsely confess.
While adolescents are capable of making big decisions alone under ideal circumstances (i.e., low pressure, unemotional, no time constraints, and little or no social influence), they struggle to make decisions when under pressure and under conditions that are emotionally salient. Yet, these are precisely the type of conditions under which most juvenile interrogations occur. How can rates of false confessions among youths be decreased? One important way is to make changes in legal policies to give added protections to youths under the age of 18 years old, such as requiring that juvenile interrogations are videotaped. For example, New York State Senate’s Bill S6533 would require videotaping in youth interrogations. There are now 26 states, and the District of Columbia, that require videotaping of interrogations for serious crimes (i.e., murder and rape). In a videotaped interrogation, prosecutors or a jury can observe police tactics and a suspect’s demeanor and may therefore more easily identify a false confession which could help avoid a wrongful conviction.
An additional protection for juveniles is the requirement of having an attorney present for any questioning of juveniles. Having a parent or guardian in the room is not enough as they tend to have a lack of legal knowledge, and a lack of understanding of rights and police practices. Moreover, having a parent or guardian present has shown to cause more harm than good. In 2019 New York State Senate amended Bill S4980 which now requires youth under the age of 18 years old to (1) meet with an attorney before being interviewed and (2) only be interviewed if deemed necessary by police (e.g., if the child’s life or someone else’s life is in immediate danger). California also recently passed a similar bill: SB203, which requires that youths under the age of 17 years old speak with an attorney before being interrogated. This practice is beneficial to youths because they will be better informed of their rights and be made aware of interrogative procedures.
Since youths are more likely to make a false confession when interviewed for long periods of time, one final protection for juveniles is to limit the lengths of interrogations. Currently, no law limits the time length of an interrogation and, in some cases, youths are denied breaks during an interview. Interrogating a youth for hours can be problematic as it builds on the stress being placed on the juvenile. Therefore, enforcing time limits on an interrogation may reduce the chances of eliciting a false confession.
While such legislative decisions may not outright prevent false confessions from occurring, these changes may give adolescents a better chance at an even playing field. Allowing a youth time to reflect on the seriousness of the situation and providing them with the opportunity to speak with an attorney will help lead them to making more informed decisions. In addition, recording interrogations will prevent apparent coercion, long interrogation periods, and manipulation by police—and will ultimately show if extreme stress was placed on the youth. Finally, placing time limits on youth interrogations will reduce the stress that the youth is under. Giving youths these added protections will hopefully prevent them from making the life-altering decision to falsely confess.
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