How Can We Prevent False Confessions From Kids and Teenagers?

A new study shows that most cops use the same interrogation techniques on both adults and juveniles—and why that needs to change.
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Interrogation room. (Photo: TheRenderFish/Shutterstock)

Interrogation room. (Photo: TheRenderFish/Shutterstock)

One of the most compelling aspects of the infamous “Central Park jogger case,” in which five young boys between the ages of 14 and 16 were convicted of a violent rape, is the question of why all of the boys would have given detailed confessions about the crime that they did not commit—a crime of which they would only be acquitted 12 years after their convictions.

In fact, that case is just one example of a very frequent phenomenon, especially among adolescents and teenagers. A 2006 article in American Psychologistcited a review of exonerations from 1989 to 2004 and found that 42 percent of exonerations of juveniles involved false confessions at the time of the crime, compared with the 13 percent false confessions involved in adult exonerations. “Among the youngest of these juvenile exonerees (12- to 15-year-olds), 69 percent confessed to homicides and rapes that they did not commit.” Psychological research has found that the younger a teenager is, the more likely he or she is to confessing under pressure to something that he or she didn’t do.

It shouldn’t be surprising that young minds are more vulnerable to the power of suggestion, especially in intimidating circumstances involving authority figures. And every parent and teacher knows that, adolescents are much more likely than adults to value short-term gains over long-term consequences when making their decisions (PDF). But what’s surprising is that police detectives don’t seem to be taking these factors into consideration when interrogating young witnesses and suspects of crimes.

Todd Warner, a psychology graduate student at the University of Virginia, is interested in the intersections of brain development and criminal justice. As part of his research for his dissertation, Warner recently attended a national conference where police from across the country come to get various kinds of training, and surveyed 178 cops there on this topic.

The survey asked questions about what kinds of training the police officers had received about juvenile psychology or brain development, whether they ever thought about using different interrogation methods on juveniles and adults, and what kinds of training they’d like to have in the future. The results, as summarized by the University of Virginia, were less than promising:

He found that only about 20 percent of police officers receive any training regarding adolescent development. Less than half receive training on how to assess Miranda comprehension. And nearly all of the officers surveyed reported frequently using the same interrogation techniques on minors as on adults.

“A number of them said they wanted more training on adolescent development, and how teenagers are different, and what it is that they could do differently with them,” Warner says. “There’s actually a need and a demand for it. It’s not the case that police officers just don’t care; it’s just that they don’t receive that training.”

One of Warner’s recommendations for bridging this gap is for police departments to involve developmental psychologists and other social scientists in their training of new officers and their interrogation policies. He would also like to see that all interrogations be videotaped, something he believes is in the best interest of both sides of the interaction. The requirement for cops to videotape interrogations and confessions is regulated on a state-by-state basis, but the Department of Justice has very recently hinted at stricter policies on the federal level.

Another troubling aspect of interrogations specifically involving juveniles is how frequently they waive their right to remain silent, and their right to speak with an attorney—both of which can make them vulnerable to false confessions. Barry Feld, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, analyzed over 300 juvenile interrogations and found that about 90 percent of teenagers waived their Miranda rights. This may be an issue of simple lack of understanding more than anything else.

"A number of [police officers] said they wanted more training on adolescent development, and how teenagers are different, and what it is that they could do differently with them. There’s actually a need and a demand for it. It’s not the case that officers just don’t care; it’s that they don’t receive that training."

Research by psychologist Thomas Grisso has shown that (again, despite what we see on TV) many children and teens have a hard time understanding the Miranda warnings when under stress. Grisso found that those under 16 tend to not understand the actual vocabulary of the warnings. And 16- and 17-year-olds understand the vocabulary, but they often don’t understand the function of it—that is, that the Miranda warnings are in place to protect them.

For their part, Warner says, police officers are trained to minimize the Miranda warnings’ importance and treat them as a formality. It’s very effective, when dealing with a scared teenager, for interrogators to say things like “I want to hear your side of the story” and “If you invoke your right to remain silent, it’s going to look suspicious” and “This is going to be the only time when you have the opportunity to tell me your side of the story.”

“That really sucks a lot of teenagers in,” Warner says. “I mean, it sucks a lot of adults in, too.”

That, of course, is another big problem: The most commonly used methods for interrogating both kids and adults has been proven again and again to be ineffective. About half of the police officers in Warner’s survey had been formally trained in the “Reid Technique,” and the other half had been informally trained in it through on-the-job colleague-shadowing. The Reid method teaches police officers to detect deception in suspects by observing patterns in body language, like slouching or fidgeting.

In fact, Warner says, numerous studies by psychologists have shown that this technique gives cops about a 50-50 chance of guessing right. Body language is a tricky thing; people who are lying often closely observe and adjust their own body language so as to appear calm, while people telling the truth can seem fidgety and nervous just because they’re feeling the stress of having to prove their innocence. The danger is that, having gone through the Reid training, interrogators tend to be over-confident in their own ability to judge accurately.

“What it amounts to is really a self-fulfilling prophecy, or hindsight bias,” Warner says. “You essentially see what you want to see, and you interpret the behavior in the way that best fits your goals.” (See Douglas Starr’s investigation into Reid & Associates for the New Yorker last year for more about the method’s wide impact and its flaws.)

Psychologists are now trying to come up with better methods to detect lies: for instance, “increasing cognitive load” (making the suspect process more and more information, so that they’ll have a harder time keeping a lie straight), or having them tell their story in reverse.

These methods are “a little bit more accurate in detecting deception,” Warner says, but still not great. “We still haven’t quite figured out how to really accurately determine whether people are lying or not.” And when those people are kids, the negative consequences of that fact can be dire, and long-lasting.

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