Police Interrogation of Juveniles: An Empirical Study of Policy and Practice

By Feld, Barry C. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Police Interrogation of Juveniles: An Empirical Study of Policy and Practice


Feld, Barry C., Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. INTRODUCTION

   [B]y any standards of human discourse, a criminal confession
   can never truly be called voluntary. With rare exception, a
   confession is compelled, provoked and manipulated from a suspect
   by a detective who has been trained in a genuinely deceitful
   art. That is the essence of interrogation, and those who
   believe that a straightforward conversation between a cop and
   a criminal--devoid of any treachery--is going to solve a crime
   are somewhere beyond naive. If the interrogation process is, from
   a moral standpoint, contemptible, it is nonetheless essential.
   Deprived of the ability to question and confront suspects and
   witnesses, a detective is left with physical evidence and in many
   cases, precious little of that. Without a chance for a detective
   to manipulate a suspect's mind, a lot of bad people
   would simply go free. (1)

Interrogation manuals and training programs teach police to use psychological tactics and strategies to heighten suspects' stress and anxiety and to manipulate their vulnerabilities to obtain confessions. (2) Most people would regard as reprehensible some of the deceptive techniques that police routinely use if employed by their acquaintances in everyday life. (3) Misrepresenting facts, presenting false evidence, lying, and deceit are part and parcel of the interrogation process. (4)

A suspect's self-incriminating statement leads almost ineluctably to a plea or conviction. (5) A relationship exists between certain types of interrogation tactics, false confessions, and wrongful convictions. (6) Cases abound of innocent people who are wrongly convicted based solely on false confessions of dubious reliability. (7) Aggressive or manipulative techniques may be especially dangerous when police employ them with vulnerable suspects, such as those with mental retardation or juveniles. (8)

Despite youths' vulnerability in the interrogation room, courts treat them as the functional equivalents of adults and use the adult legal standard--"knowing, intelligent, and voluntary under the totality of the circumstances"--to gauge their waivers of Miranda rights and the voluntariness of confessions. Interrogation manuals recommend that police use the same techniques with children as with adults, despite developmental psychologists' doubts that juveniles possess the cognitive ability or judgment necessary to function on par with adults. (9)

We know remarkably little about how police actually question delinquents. Most of what the legal community--judges, law professors and criminologists, and policymakers--and the public know about interrogation practices derives from anecdotal cases of police abuse and false confessions often elicited from young, unsophisticated children. Dramatic portrayals of police interrogation in movies and television programs bear scant relationship to the mundane reality most criminal suspects experience. Four decades after the Supreme Court decided Miranda, we still have remarkably few empirical studies by criminologists or legal scholars about how police actually question suspects. Police departments are extremely reluctant to grant researchers unrestricted access to interrogation rooms. Concerns about confidentiality and protection of human subjects make it even more difficult to obtain empirical data or to directly observe police questioning juveniles.

This Article presents the first systematic quantitative and qualitative data--interrogation tapes and transcripts, police reports, juvenile court filings, and probation and sentencing reports--about how police question juveniles. Section II summarizes the law governing police interrogation of juveniles. Section III examines developmental psychological research on juveniles' competence to exercise legal rights. Section IV reviews empirical studies of police interrogation, social psychological research on interrogation, and analyses of practices associated with eliciting false confessions.

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