Research: GA teens may be more prone to false confessions than adults

Rates of false confession are higher among juveniles than adults; juvenile impulsiveness and vulnerability to manipulation may contribute to this pattern.

To many people in Atlanta, the idea of a person confessing to a crime that he or she didn't commit may seem hard to comprehend. However, research shows that various factors, from external duress to fatigue, can raise a person's risk of making a false confession, even for crimes with steep legal consequences, such as manslaughter. For adolescents, this false confession risk may be especially pronounced.

Troubling false confession rates

In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that the rate of false confessions is much higher among juveniles than adults. A review of 1,155 exonerations found that 11 percent of adult exonerations involved false confessions, compared to 38 percent of juvenile exonerations.

An article published in 2009 in the American Psychological Association's journal Law and Human Behavior notes that age is a significant risk factor for false confessions, with differences apparent even among juveniles. One study found that juveniles who were younger than 18 made 35 percent of all the verified false confessions that were surveyed. More than 55 percent of those juveniles were under the age of 15.

Risk factors unique to juveniles

The Wall Street Journal notes that many factors can increase the likelihood of juveniles making false confessions. These include:

  • Impulsive tendencies - the adolescent brain is more prone to make sudden decisions that may not pay off in the long run.
  • Need for short-term gratification - juveniles are more easily swayed by short-term rewards, such as the promise of going home or receiving a break from the interrogation, which means they may lose sight of the long-term consequences of a false confession.
  • Deference to authorities - during an interrogation, juveniles are more likely to cooperate with or yield to authorities, even if that means giving a confession that is not true.
  • Susceptibility to manipulation - adolescents may also be more vulnerable to manipulative tactics that encourage confessions or false admissions, such as leading questions.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has recommended that authorities eliminate certain practices that can raise a juvenile's risk of making a false confession. These include prolonged interviews, misleading or deceptive statements and promises of milder punishment in exchange for a confession. Additionally, the IACP recommends that all juvenile interviews be recorded.

Consequences of false confessions

These initiatives are essential, given the serious consequences that false confessions can lead to. Under Georgia law, people who are between ages 13 and 17 are charged through the juvenile justice system, which focuses on rehabilitation over punishment. However, for certain crimes - including murder, rape and armed robbery committed with a firearm - juveniles can be prosecuted as adults. The impact of false confessions can be especially steep for these juveniles.

Given the risk of false confessions, legal guidance is essential for juveniles who have been accused of criminal offenses. An attorney can provide needed advice on personal rights as well as different ways of responding to the criminal charges.

Keywords: crime, arrest, confession