In the United States, around 60,000 juveniles are placed in prisons and jails daily. Research shows that adolescents are less likely to understand their rights and what it means to waive your rights in an interrogation setting. It is understood that our youth need special protection, especially in these types of situations, and yet, the accusatorial interrogation tactics that are used on adults, are not modified for adolescents. These tactics are considered extremely harsh even for adults, but applying them to juveniles will inherently lead to false confessions and wrongful imprisonment. Juveniles in the Interrogation Room: Defense Attorneys as a Protective factor (August, C. N., & Henderson, K.S 2021) explores one of the most supported notions that juveniles need protection in interrogations, and an attorney should always be present.
It is often the case that, when a juvenile is being questioned by police officers, there is no adult present. In a study described by August & Henderson, of the 307 youth charged with a felony, 90% of them were interrogated alone. A very small percentage of youth had a parent present, but this may not always be what’s best, as parents may be influenced by an officer’s opinion and in turn, encourage their child to “come clean” and “tell the truth.” Additional research has shown that juveniles cannot fully comprehend their Miranda rights (Viljoen & Roesch, 2005; Viljoen et al., 2005; Feld, 2012). Before a simple “interview” turns into an interrogation, your Miranda rights must be read to you. At this crucial decision-making point, an individual may invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or waive them and choose to cooperate and answer questions. For a juvenile, this decision is not an easy one as they are taught to be obedient to authority, are much more trusting and dependent on adults, and can be intimidated easily.
With such a high rate of juvenile incarceration, coupled with the high rate of false confessions and wrongful imprisonment, this raises the question of whether defense attorneys should be present during a juvenile interrogation. A defense attorneys’ main responsibility is to ensure that their client’s constitutional and legal rights are protected. Given the fact that juveniles’ level of legal understanding is limited, having a defense attorney/counsel is essential.
In the current study, a total of 19 defense attorneys from the state of Oregon, who had each provided counsel to a juvenile were interviewed. Questions were open-ended, general, and nonspecific as to not violate defendants’ rights to attorney-client privilege (e.g., “If your juvenile client was considering waiving their 5th amendment right and confessing, how would you advise them?”). All interviews were recorded, transcribed then coded for specific themes. The results of the current study showed that overall, defense attorneys were in favor for initiating a policy in Oregon that requires the presence of an attorney in juvenile interrogations. Most attorneys mentioned research supported issues with juvenile interrogations such as juvenile suggestibility, less developed brains, and blind obedience to authority.
Although this study was conducted in Oregon, there is a nationwide issue at hand. Studies like this are extremely important in understanding how to improve our justice system and protect the rights of our youth.