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In juvenile justice, kids need protection from false confessions

A third of false confessions come from youths under 18. Youths are more easily intimidated and less adept at understanding the ramifications of their statements than adults. They should not be treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

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In a rendering from the first trial in the 1989 Central Park rape case, prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer examines victim Tricia Meili as defendants listen. The defendants, then 14 to 16 years old, gave false confessions, but were later exonerated – after completing their prison terms. Op-ed contributor Lael Chester writes: Kids 'are not particularly good at seeing the long-term consequences of their actions.'

Courtesy of PBS/file

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 “The Central Park Five,” the powerful documentary by Ken Burns and his daughter, Sarah, recounts the police trickery and intimidation that led a group of innocent youths aged 14 to 16 to confess to the brutal 1989 rape of a young investment banker jogging in Central Park. The natural reaction from many viewers was: “How horrible things used to be.” Sadly, the reaction of most of us in the juvenile justice community has been: "When will it ever change?"

Before the dawn of DNA fingerprinting, confessions served as nearly ironclad evidence for the prosecution. But we now know that many people confess to crimes they did not commit. While they do it for a host of reasons, the pressure of plea bargaining is a common cause.

This problem is particularly egregious among young people, who are more susceptible to giving false confessions than adults. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recently issued a statement calling for special protections for minors when being questioned by police. It recommends the presence of an attorney, the use of terms and concepts that match the developmental ability of the youth, and the video recording of questioning.

These are good ideas. A major 2004 study found that of 125 cases of proven false confessions, 63 percent occurred when the accused was under the age of 25, and 32 percent were from suspects under 18. While the numbers may be shocking, it should not be surprising that youths are more easily intimidated and less adept at understanding the ramifications of their statements.

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