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The Wrongful Conviction of Juveniles in America Explained

Despite the American legal system being built on solid and fair foundations, wrongful convictions still seem to be a persistent issue. Moreover, this phenomenon is more commonly observed among juveniles than adults. This issue has been recognized by a number of experts, who have devoted considerable attention to identifying the causes of and finding solutions for the prevalence of wrongful convictions among juvenile offenders. From these research studies, clear results have emerged in the form of adapted procedures that are recommended to be followed in order to achieve a positive result and, therefore, justice. Thus, the question is why this phenomenon persists, even after various research has produced results and solutions. This article serves to elucidate the reasons for which wrongful conviction of juveniles continues to occur, along with providing a brief overview of the research findings that explain the persistence of this issue.


Understanding what accounts for wrongful convictions is crucial to finding answers and providing solutions. A conviction described as wrongful can generally occur in two circumstances: either the defendant is wrongfully convicted and, in reality, is innocent, or the defendant's rights have been violated by procedural errors in the criminal proceedings (National Institute of Justice, n.d.). These procedural errors in criminal proceedings consist of, among other things, incomplete, incorrect, or absent interpretations of Miranda rights. Miranda rights are the legal rights of every American who is being arrested, regardless of their age (Caccarozzo & Legal division intern, n.d.). The difference between juveniles and adults with respect to Miranda rights is that juveniles have the legal right to have these rights not "merely read to them" but to have them presented in a language they understand (Caccarozzo & Legal division intern, n.d.). There are procedures specifically for juveniles who have been arrested to help them understand what is required of them, but they still are wrongfully convicted. But what makes a juvenile more susceptible to wrongful conviction? This is mainly because adolescents are more vulnerable to external pressures and are more prone to succumb to them, especially when it comes to the pressure of authority figures, which in this case is represented by a police investigator.


three figures in orange shirts and pants holding up signs from the US correctional facility with numbers on them. One is much shorter than the other to indicate a younger age.
Figure 1: Illustration of wrongfully convicted juveniles (Smallasagiant, n.d.).

To properly address this issue, it is important to establish the meaning of the word juvenile. A juvenile is defined under the law as a person who is not old enough to be responsible for a crime (“Juvenile Law,” n.d.). The age of juveniles is generally limited to 18 years and below. However, this age limit ranges from 16 to 19 years of age in some states. The minimum age limit that someone can be charged for a crime also varies depending on the state and its laws. These age definitions are important because they determine whether a defendant will be prosecuted in adult or juvenile court and what consequences they face in relation to the crime they are charged with (“Juvenile Law,” n.d.). From a scientific perspective, significant information linking to the age at which a juvenile is considered an adult is the development of the brain, which continues into early adulthood (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2013). There is compelling evidence that the part of the brain responsible for controlling impulsivity, judgment, future planning, and other characteristics related to a person's morality matures around age 20 (Ortiz, 2004). Thus, from a biological perspective, it is likely that a person reaches maturity and moral responsibility between 21 and 22 years of age. If the final development of the brain is not completed until between the ages of 21 and 22, the age of adolescence, which is currently set in most states at 18 or younger, should adjust accordingly. Consequently, if the biological aspect of brain development clearly demonstrates the difference in brain functions according to age, then failure to apply the recommended methods of communicating with juveniles during criminal proceedings can lead to a wrongful conviction, for example, by a false confession.


False confessions are one of the most common causes of wrongful convictions in juveniles. According to the Innocence Project, a national organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted in America, it is estimated that, of those who have been wrongfully convicted, approximately one in four juveniles aged 16 to 17 across the nation falsely confessed to the crime (Innocence Project, 2021). Further statistical data indicates that the younger a person, the higher the percentage of false confessions. In fact, 69% of wrongfully convicted individuals aged 12-15 falsely confessed (Innocence Project, 2021). There are various reasons why false confessions are so frequently encountered among juveniles. As mentioned earlier, individuals under the age of 20 are still experiencing brain development, and this final development is closely linked to maturity and moral values. Simultaneously, the use of deceptive and manipulative techniques during interrogation is currently allowed in most states in America (Quiroz, 2022), which, in conjunction with an underdeveloped brain, can result in a false confession. Another factor affecting false confessions is the level of conformity to opinion, as part of the manipulative techniques used by the police includes planting their own opinions regarding the situation being investigated into an interrogation. This degree of conformity to opinion is age-dependent, with children and adolescents showing a higher susceptibility to social influences than adults (Quiroz, 2022), making them more susceptible to appropriating the interrogating authority's opinion. Interrogators oftentimes present themselves as friendly police officers who try to help the juvenile by expressing some leniency in exchange for the juvenile's confession. This approach is even more coercive on the juvenile and often leads to a false confession (Quiroz, 2022). Police using deceptive tactics during juvenile interrogation has only been outlawed in a few states in America; thus, it is clear that one of the reasons juveniles falsely confess more often than adults is simply due to the manipulative and deceptive police interrogation techniques that are legally permitted in most of the country (Innocence Project, 2021). To avoid juveniles falsely confessing for these reasons, one solution is to continue to pass legislation that serves to protect juveniles from the use of deceptive and manipulative interrogation tactics, as states like Illinois, Oregon, and Utah have already passed (Quiroz, 2022). This would ensure that any use of manipulative and deceptive techniques by police during juvenile interrogation would have consequences.


Illustration of two people having dialogue while camera is pointing on them
Figure 2: Illustration representing a juvenile's confession under coercion (James Heimer, n.d.).

A further variant of wrongful conviction is the violation of an individual's rights known as Miranda rights. These rights are as follows, "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?"(Miranda Warning, n.d.). These Miranda rights are equally applicable to juveniles and adults, but there are additional actions involved when it comes to detaining a juvenile. First, Miranda rights must be explained to the juvenile in a manner that helps the juvenile understand both the rights and their meaning. Failure to understand these Miranda rights can lead a juvenile to choose not to exercise their rights, such as the right to counsel. However, consulting with an attorney could reduce involuntary waiver of other rights, thereby protecting children from false confessions (Sahdev, 2018). Everyone has the legal authority to exercise their rights during a criminal prosecution. This example regarding the right to an attorney is just a small illustration of how failing to understand their rights can affect the position of the juveniles being prosecuted, and thus why it is imperative to properly and fully explain these Miranda rights to the juvenile in a way that they understand instead of simply reading the rights to them with no explanation.


Concerning the waiver of Miranda rights, studies show that more than half of the tested juveniles in America displayed an "inadequate" understanding of at least one of the four Miranda warnings. As many as 44.8% of juveniles, compared to 14.6% of adults, did not understand their right to consult with and have an attorney present during questioning (Sahdev, 2018). A frequent misunderstanding was the "place and time" when the juvenile had the opportunity to consult with an attorney. Compared to 8.5% of adults, 23.9% of juveniles misunderstood the statement that explained "anything said during the interrogation can be used against [them] in court" (Sahdev, 2018). As many as 61.8% of juveniles, compared to 21.7% of adults, did not realize that a judge cannot penalize them for not giving a statement by invoking their right to remain silent. If juveniles do not understand their rights and therefore waive them, it indicates a failure to protect key constitutional rights (Sahdev, 2018) such as the right to remain silent or the right to counsel (Department of Justice, 2020). One of the consequences of waiving rights is that the police can interrogate the juvenile as an adult, that is, without a parent, guardian, or lawyer representing the juvenile's rights, which leaves the juvenile vulnerable. The absence of an authority figure, such as a lawyer, assisting the juvenile through the interrogation process can lead to a wrongful conviction as a result of false confession due to succumbing to the various pressures that the police use, which may not have occurred with said authority figure present.


Crying child sitting behind the table alone in the room
Figure 3: Illustration of a severely distraught teenager left alone in an interrogation room (Ngadi Smart for Studio Pi/The Guardian, 2022).

An important step that must be completed during an arrest of a juvenile is that the arresting officer should immediately inform the parents, guardians, or custodians of the juvenile, along with the Attorney General, of the arrest in question. The officer should also inform a juvenile of the nature and reasons for the arrest and the rights of the arrested juvenile (Caccarozzo & Legal division intern, n.d.). Although the law states that the police are required to make a reasonable effort to locate the juvenile's parents or guardian and promptly inform them of the juvenile's rights before the interrogation begins, the reality is often different. One of the reasons for questioning a juvenile without the parents' knowledge is the failure to contact them. This fact is illustrated by the court case of U.S. v. John Doe, where the police began questioning a juvenile without informing the parents after they failed to contact them and three and one-half hours had passed since the juvenile's arrest. This example illustrates that although this approach is considered proper procedure it still does not result in the juvenile being properly advised of the importance of his Miranda rights and how to exercise them (Caccarozzo & Legal division intern, n.d.). Another case, U.S. v. Burrous, which involved questioning a juvenile without the knowledge of a parent proceeded as it did because the defendant repeatedly stated that he did not know how to contact his parents or brother (Caccarozzo & Legal division intern, n.d.). The defendant did not provide enough information for his parents to be contacted, nor did he attempt to contact them himself. He subsequently waived his Miranda rights and pleaded no contest to the offense. The court ruled that the law enforcement officers acted properly and made repeated attempts to contact the defendant's family members, and thus the defendant's confession was admissible. This example illustrates the procedure prior to questioning a juvenile, and thus, while law enforcement must immediately inform the parents or guardians of the situation, they may proceed to interrogate the juvenile in their absence unless the juvenile himself states that he does not wish to testify without their presence, as this is one of his Miranda rights.


However, as noted above, juveniles often waive their Miranda rights largely due to external psychological pressure from the police, which mainly consists of convincing the interviewee that they can get a better deal by confessing. One illustration of a false confession under coercion which led to a wrongful conviction is the case of Huwe Burton, who was 16 years old at the time of the alleged offense. The murder of Burton's mother took place in 1989, and Burton was eventually charged and subsequently convicted for this crime in 1991. His conviction was largely based on a false confession that investigators obtained through coercion and false promises of leniency if he confessed. While being questioned, he was also separated from his father and had no legal counsel present, indicating Burton's potential lack of understanding of his rights at the time. Burton's legal team was determined to vindicate their client, and due to their efforts for justice, the case was eventually reopened. The new investigation revealed these coercive tactics along with an alternative perpetrator, and, in 2019, Mr. Burton was exonerated after spending 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit (Innocence Project, 2021).


drawing of a young boy sitting at a table with his head hung and his hands together on the tabletop with a red speech bubble coming from his mouth and forming around his wrists to demonstrate how speaking is tied to freedom
Figure 4: Illustration of a boy portraying the promised freedom in exchange for a confession (Brian Stauffer, n.d.).

The cornerstone of any legal system is justice. The legal system's role is to justly detect a crime and, based on lawful procedures, punish the guilty or clear the innocent. However, this is not always the case, and wrongful convictions still occur. Moreover, the phenomenon can be observed more frequently among juveniles than adults (Family Law Group, 2019). Research on this issue has shown a difference between adult and adolescent brains. While the brain of a person aged 21 years and older is, under standard circumstances, considered to be fully developed, the brain of a younger person is still in the process of development. The problem is that in most states the age of adulthood is 18, with some states having an age limit below that. This means that individuals who do not have a fully developed brain are expected to act and behave as if they did. Simultaneously, there is often a lack of police compliance with statutory procedures for juveniles during prosecution, even when the individual is within the age limit for juveniles. To eliminate this problem, the age at which a person is considered to be an adult needs to be reconsidered and investigative tactics, including interrogation, need to be adjusted in response. Additionally, deceptive and manipulative interrogation techniques, which are still permitted by law in most states, also need to be reevaluated, and further efforts are needed to improve the explanation and clarification of Miranda rights to juveniles. Understanding and addressing all of these underlying variables related to the issue of juvenile wrongful convictions may directly and effectively protect children from manipulation, coercion, and other forms of injustice during prosecution proceedings.


Bibliographical References

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2013). Interviewing and interrogating juvenile suspects. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from

https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Policy_Statements/2013/Interviewing_and_Interrogating_Juvenile_Suspects.aspx


Caccarozzo, J. L. C. & Legal Division Intern. (n.d.). Juvenile Miranda rights. Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers.

https://www.fletc.gov/sites/default/files/imported_files/training/programs/legal-division/downloads-articles-and-faqs/research-by-subject/5th-amendment/juvenilemirandarights.pdf


Department of Justice. (2020, January 22). 121. Constitutional protections afforded juveniles. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-121-constitutional-protections-afforded-juveniles


Family Law Group. (2019, August 20). Why are juveniles wrongfully convicted? Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.northvalaw.com/blog/2019/august/why-are-juveniles-wrongfully-convicted-2/


Innocence Project. (2021, July 13). Huwe Burton exonerated of murder after spending 19 years in prison. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://innocenceproject.org/cases/huwe-burton/


Innocence Project. (2021, March 18). Youth against wrongful convictions. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://innocenceproject.org/petitions/youth-against-wrongful-convictions/


Juvenile Law. (n.d.) West's encyclopedia of American law, edition 2. (2008). Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Juvenile+Law


Knoll, L. J., Leung, J. T., Foulkes, L., & Blakemore, S. J. (2017). Age-related differences in social influence on risk perception depend on the direction of influence. Journal of adolescence, 60, 53–63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.07.002


MirandaWarning.(n.d.)What are your Miranda rights? (n.d.). Retrieved February 17, 2023, from http://www.mirandawarning.org/whatareyourmirandarights.html


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.) Miranda rights. In Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Miranda%20rights


Ortiz, A. (2004). Cruel and unusual punishment: The juvenile death penalty: Adolescence, brain development and legal culpability. American Bar Association.

https://capitalpunishmentincontext.org/files/resources/juveniles/adolescencecopy.pdf


Sahdev, H. M. S. (2018). Juvenile Miranda waivers and wrongful convictions. Journal of Constitutional Law, 20(5), 1211. https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1667&context=jcl


National Institute of Justice. (n.d.). Wrongful convictions. Retrieved February 22, 2023, from https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/justice-system-reform/wrongful-convictions


Quiroz, N. (2022, May 13). Five Facts About Police Deception and Youth You Should Know. Innocence Project. https://innocenceproject.org/police-deception-lying-interrogations-youth-teenagers/


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Greta Nachajova

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