False Confessions Among Teens a Growing Problem

by Cecilia Bianco

Daniel Taylor falsely confessed to a 1992 double murder in Chicago at the age of 17. This year, he was exonerated of the crime and released after spending 20 years behind bars.

Taylor said he confessed as a 17-year-old because he was afraid police would continue to hit him in the side with a flashlight. Taylor is one story among many in the growing issue of false confessions among young people.

Young people under the age of eighteen are three times more likely to falsely confess than adults.

In the last quarter century, 38 percent of exonerations for crimes committed by youth involved false confessions—compared to 11 percent for adults—based on a new database of 1,155 individuals who were wrongly convicted and later cleared of all charges.

Many cases suggest that teens confess to crimes they didn’t commit due to high-pressure interrogations or short-term gratification—admitting to a crime so that they can leave and go home.

Another debated cause of false confessions among youth is the fact that many young people do not understand their Miranda rights to counsel and to remain silent.

As a result, many young people are alone during police interrogation, without the assistance of counsel or their parents, and research has shown that the resulting statement is often involuntary or unreliable.

In the 2011 case of J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court held that law enforcement must consider age when determining whether to issue a Miranda warning to a juvenile suspect.

The decision was split 5-4, but the majority sided with Justice Sotomayor who emphasized “the heightened risk of false confessions from youth” as many suspects under 18 are more susceptible to police pressure than the average adult.

Results of a 2013 Law and Human Behavior study suggest that potential solutions to reduce false confessions among youth include the following:

  • Conducting specialized trainings for those who interrogate youth
  • Recording interrogations
  • Placing limits on lengthy and manipulative techniques
  • Exploring alternative procedures for questioning juvenile suspects

Several of these tactics are in the process of or already are being implemented throughout the U.S.

For more information about the issues surrounding false confessions among teens, see our past reporting:

Cecilia Bianco is the social and digital communications intern for Prichard Communications and Mac’s List. She contributes to the Reclaiming Futures blog regarding topics of juvenile justice reform and substance abuse prevention.

*Image at top via Flickr user Joseph Kranak