Children deserve protections that too many aren't getting in the US justice system

Last month, a 15-year-old Illinois student was arrested and locked up for a shooting that he had nothing to do with. The high schooler confessed to the crime after police told him that if he did so, he would be released. His parents weren’t there during the interrogation and neither was his lawyer, according to a Washington Post report.

Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Eric Adams introduced a plan to address gun violence that included a deeply troubling proposal that allows prosecutors to charge 16- and 17-year-old children in criminal court (versus family court) if they are arrested for carrying a gun and refuse to tell police where they got it.

These are among the latest examples of law enforcement officials using coercion and threats against juveniles – a dangerous practice that often leads to false confessions and puts the United States at odds with international human rights standards.

High rate of false confessions

Handcuffing, shackling, lying, threatening, cajoling and hours of questioning often yield false confessions from adults. History and data tell us that these practices are even more dangerous when used against children.

In these cases, officers threatened the falsely accused teens, coerced witnesses (who were also teenagers), promised the accused that they could go home if they cooperated, lied about the existence of additional evidence, denied the teenagers access to their parents and questioned them aggressively for hours.

Sadly, these aren’t isolated incidents but rather representative of the failure to recognize – and account for – the developmental starting point of children throughout the criminal legal system. Even the Supreme Court has recognized in some contexts that children and teens are “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures.”

Among people exonerated for crimes that they were accused of as teens, 36% under 18 falsely confessed. The proportion is even more shocking for teens under 14 at 86%. False confessions don’t just harm the young people who have been accused and their loved ones. Every wrongful conviction represents a failure to hold the right person accountable and protect the public from harm. This sends the message that police and prosecutors care more about securing convictions than achieving justice.

Given the disproportionate rate at which people of color are falsely convicted, wrongful convictions also reveal the extent to which justice too often is unequal and fractures public trust. This distrust produces sentiments reflected in a study published in January, in which around half of Black respondents indicated they’d rather be victims of a robbery than have an “unprovoked” police encounter. This starting point speaks to a dysfunctional system that cannot adequately promote public safety.

This article first appeared in USA Today.

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Commonsense reforms protect kids

But more than 30 years after the Central Park Five case, few states have implemented laws to address the risk of false confessions by juveniles, and the United States stands alone among peer nations in allowing children to be interrogated by police without counsel present. Unlike other democratic countries, local jurisdictions in America legally authorize police to use deception in interrogations.

In May, under the leadership of former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez, international experts published a report establishing international norms on interrogation standards, including the use of “rapport-based, non-coercive methods” that avoid deception and the absolute right to a lawyer for children, among other protections.

Many of these reforms are common sense: Children need a lawyer and a guardian present during questioning and should have their rights explained to them in language they understand. Law enforcement should be banned from using deception and from threatening or promising benefits in exchange for a statement, and interrogations should be recorded on video and audio. There should be limits on the duration of interrogation. And the use of confessions by children under 14 as evidence should be prohibited given the heightened risk of false confessions by young children.
Until policymakers act, prosecutors can and should implement these requirements themselves. While prosecutors are limited in their ability to dictate police interrogation practices, they can decide which evidence they will or will not accept for purposes of charging and trial – and they should review the reliability and voluntariness of confessions and decline to use evidence flowing from coercive interrogations.

Admittedly, restrictions on interrogations create added burdens. But history has clearly demonstrated that the harms of unrestricted juvenile interrogations outweigh any costs of systemic protections. Our children deserve to be treated like children. And our communities deserve protections that embrace international human rights standards. Flawed processes that produce false confessions must be reformed.