America is home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, but houses a quarter of the world’s prisoners. These statistics, of course, suggest a number of faults in the U.S. correctional system. A recent study may have identified one such fault in regards to the conviction of minors. Of the 57 youth suspects involved in the study, absolutely none evoked their Miranda rights during interrogation. With rates this high researchers believe the problem is more psychological than social.

Hayley Cleary, a developmental psychologist from Virginia Commonwealth University, analyzed 57 videotaped interrogations of young adults aged between 13 and 17 in police stations across America. The footage revealed that none of the young suspects accepted the right of having an attorney present during their interrogation. “This suggests that kids don’t fully understand what it means to have the right or how important it is,” Cleary told Medical Daily.

It’s more than just not fully understanding the situation though. Cleary believes these young suspects may not even be able completely comprehend what's being asked of them. Many past studies have shown that areas of the brain responsible for executive functions such impulse control, judgment, and delayed gratification, are the last to be developed. These vulnerabilities may be carried into the interrogation room and critically affect the youth’s ability to best decide on issues related to their constitutional rights.  

The results remained the same even when factors such as gender, race, or whether or not the parent was present, was taken into context. According to the press release, only 6 of the 57 juvenile suspects were female. Of the remaining male suspects, 41 percent were identified as being white, 41 percent were black, and 18 percent were Latino or of an unknown ethnicity.

Another interesting finding from the study was that even with the presence of a parent during police interrogations, legal advice was still not sought. “I would image that parents have conflicting roles, they want to defend their children, protect their children, at the same time they might feel compelled to teach children to own up to their actions. It’s not fair to ask parents to compensate for their children,” Cleary explained.

To Cleary, the underlying message delivered through this study is clear. “Children need an attorney,” Cleary emphasized. In an ideal world an attorney would be given to every child suspect without the need for their request. This approach is admirable but Cleary suggested another which may prove more realistic. “It would help if police officers knew more about adolescent development. If police were aware of these Miranda comprehension problems it might help them to approach questioning youth, get the information they need and still protect children.”

Source: Clearly, H. Police interviewing and interrogation of juvenile suspects: A descriptive examination of actual cases. American Psychological Association. 2014