If you were arrested right now, do you feel confident enough in your knowledge of the criminal justice system to navigate the arrest, plea bargain, and sentencing? Would you feel confident in this ability when you were 15? The justice system can be difficult to navigate, especially for youths without parental help.
In Guilty Pleas of Youths and Adults, Zotolli & Daftary-Kapur (2019) tried to understand what makes people plead guilty. They interviewed kids and adults who had been charged with felonies in New York about their decision to plead guilty. Not only were the youths more likely than adults to report pleading guilty for a reduced sentence, but that they were also significantly less likely understand what rights they waived by pleading guilty. Ultimately, plea bargains are supposed to be made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntary. If juveniles are routinely pleading guilty without understanding the rights they are waiving, it raises major questions about whether their pleas can actually be considered to be knowingly and intelligently.
If youths don’t have a complete understanding of their rights in criminal proceedings, then we cannot truly be sure whether they might be pleading guilty because it is the best decision for them, or because they think it’s the best decision because they are unaware of the alternatives. Adolescents are a very vulnerable population within the criminal justice system, and our goal should be to protect those who enter into it. We need to be cautious not to deny them their rights without their knowledge.