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Interrogating serious juvenile offenders

NSF Award:

Police Interrogation of Juveniles: Competence and Vulnerability  (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities)

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In most states, the same legal standard regulates police interrogation of juveniles and adults. Officers will likely use the same tactics to question both groups. To quantify whether the police apply different interrogation strategies to adolescents than to adults, NSF-funded researchers analyzed tapes and transcripts and multiple other data sources from 307 interrogations.

The researchers examined how police administer Miranda rights (informing a suspect of their rights as a U.S. citizen), how they conduct interrogations, how juveniles respond and how their responses affect justice administration.  Findings from this research show that juveniles respond similarly to adults. They waive their rights and confess. These results are consistent with the work of developmental psychologists that shows older juveniles exhibiting adult-like competence during questioning.

The 1966 case Miranda v. Arizona required police to inform suspects of their constitutional rights prior to custodial interrogations. Nearly a half century later, very few studies demonstrate what actually happens at interrogations. The NSF study is only the second data-driven study of actual police interrogations and the first involving juveniles.

Because juveniles are more vulnerable and have poorer judgment than adults, juvenile courts use different procedural safeguards to accommodate their diminished competence to exercise rights. The study reports that police question 16- and 17-year-old juveniles charged with felonies very similarly to how they interrogate adults. It contrasts these interrogations with other research on false confessions to propose policies that protect younger offenders, identify interrogation practices that raise issues of voluntariness and reliability, and require mandatory recording of all interrogations to enhance the integrity of the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The findings, published in "Kids, Cops, and Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room" (New York University Press 2013), will aid police departments, juvenile and criminal defense attorneys, state legislatures and judicial law-reform commissions in developing better policies to regulate interrogation practices and provide social scientists with a template to repeat the study in other jurisdictions.

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  • book cover for kids, cops and confessions
Teens confess at rates similar to adults.
Barry Feld

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