Kids, Cops & Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room

In Indianapolis, a teenager was asked to explain his rights to an arresting officer. “I know my rights. I have the right to say whatever I want,” he replied.

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This misinterpretation of Miranda rights is not uncommon. According to Dr. Barry Feld,“Many juveniles – especially those 15 years of age and younger – do not understand the words or rights contained in the Miranda warning.”

In order to better understand this phenomenon, Feld went to a place very few juvenile justice advocates have been allowed to enter: the interrogation room. Since 1995, Minnesota has required police to record all interrogations. It is one of only three states where such recordings are required for all custodial interrogations.  A few more states require it for homicide interrogations or very young offenders.

Feld’s Unique Research

County attorneys there gave Feld unrestricted access to files on all felony cases involving 16- and 17-year-old offenders. He then narrowed his sample by selecting only the cases where a youth invoked Miranda  or where a youth waived and there was a transcript or recording of the interrogation.

Feld’s is only the second empirical study of interrogations since Miranda was decided in 1966 – and the first involving juveniles.  Feld analyzed 307 recordings and transcripts of police questioning teenagers. The results of this analysis, as well as the policy recommendations to which they led, are presented in Feld’s new book: Kids, Cops & Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room (NYU Press 2013).

  • In 90% of the cases Feld analyzed, juvenile suspects waived their Miranda rights and chose to answer police questions, often incriminating themselves in the process.
  • In most of these cases, once a waiver had been obtained, police questioned youth using the same psychological techniques they would use on an adult suspect.
  • The majority of the kids in question confessed, and an additional third gave police some incriminating information.
  • While parents were present in some of the interrogations, their presence rarely resulted in greater protection of their children’s constitutional rights. In fact, in most cases, Feld found that parents sided with the police in questioning, and urged their children to tell the police everything they knew.

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Feld’s Recommendations for Best Practices

Given these startling findings, how then do we balance the right of the police to interrogate a suspect with a child’s right against self-incrimination? Feld offers several recommendations for future best practices:

  • Mandatory assistance of counsel for suspects under age 15. Children 15 years and younger are rarely able to understand their rights, let alone assert them. In these tense interrogations, parents often cannot or do not act to protect their children’s constitutional rights, and police have a different agenda entirely. Having an attorney in the room from the start ensures that police interrogations of youthful offenders meet constitutional requirements.
  • Mandatory recording of all interviews. Right now, only Alaska, Wisconsin and Minnesota require recording of all police interrogations, with about half a dozen other states requiring recording for only the most serious offenses.  With inexpensive and readily available technology, Feld believes that recording police interviews will allow for greater objectivity, transparency and accountability in the justice system.
  • Time limits on police interrogations. According to Feld’s findings, interrogations that elicit false confessions usually last more than six hours, with the likelihood of a false confession increasing as the length of questioning increases. This suggests that one way to protect the rights of juveniles while simultaneously enhancing the accuracy of the information received is to simply limit the length of time police are questioning kids.

To read more of Dr. Barry Feld’s insight into the inner workings of police interrogations, visit: Kids, Cops & Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room. And for more information on juvenile interviews and interrogations, including best practices for law enforcement, check out Reducing Risks: An Executive’s Guide to Effective Juvenile Interview and Interrogation published by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.