No one is served by a child’s false confession: The perpetrator of the crime remains unidentified, an innocent young person is locked up, and our communities are no safer. In 2022, the Maryland General Assembly came up with a common-sense solution, enacting the Child Interrogation Protection Act. Unfortunately, it’s already under attack.
The new law established reasonable procedures to prevent false confessions and protect young people from coercion during interrogation. The law requires police to allow a child to consult with an attorney before facing an interrogation unless a public safety emergency necessitates immediate questioning. Police must also give notice to parents if their child has been taken into custody, a common-sense protection that supports parents caring for their children.
The new law only applies when a young person is in custody, when the child is not free to leave and most likely to feel coerced to speak. As always, police may engage with young people in informal conversations not designed to elicit confessions.
This thoughtful legislation is now under attack by some in law enforcement and by prosecutors whose arguments largely boil down to “the law makes our job harder.” It’s true, being able to coerce false confessions would make the jobs of police and prosecutors simpler, but that’s not what our community needs or our Constitution demands.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miranda v. Arizona gives every person the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, with the goal of protecting individuals from coercive questioning. But many children do not understand these rights. Young people often believe that the right to remain silent means they need to be quiet, that “anything you say can be used against you in a court of law” means that they shouldn’t curse.
The Child Interrogation Protection Act codifies what we know from experience, science and data: Children cannot enforce their Miranda rights without additional support. Children are uniquely susceptible to pressure by adults and developmentally programmed to seek the quick reward of ending an interrogation over the long-term benefit of remaining silent. As many as 90% of youths waive Miranda rights at interrogation. The pressures may be even greater on Black young people who have witnessed or experienced disproportionate levels of violence by police, and may therefore be more fearful during interrogations.
Indeed, children falsely confess at astounding rates. In a laboratory study, most children who were asked to sign a false confession did so without protest. Studies of wrongful convictions reveal that children are two to three times more likely to falsely confess than adults. Among children younger than 14, a shocking 86% of exonerations included false confessions.
The law provides the protection children need, requiring consultation with an attorney before they can waive their rights. After all, what good are constitutional rights for children if they don’t know what they mean, or the consequences of giving them up? That is why states like California, Washington, and most recently, Hawaii, have all passed similar laws protecting children during police interrogations.
Maryland has the systems in place to make the law work. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender has set up a hotline staffed 24/7, 365 days a year to ensure that a child’s right to counsel becomes a reality. Any time a police officer wants to interrogate a child who does not already have access to an attorney, they must call the hotline so that the child can speak to someone who will explain their rights in a way they can understand. Requiring police to take this step is a small price to ensure children get the benefit of their constitutional rights.
Deciding whether to speak to police or to remain silent has grave consequences. It can mean the difference between freedom or wrongful imprisonment, as we saw in the Harlem Park Three and Central Park Five cases. What if the Harlem Park Three – Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart and Ransom Watkins, wrongly accused of murder at age 16 – were your children? Would you want to be notified that police had arrested them? Would you want your child to speak with a defense attorney before waiving their constitutional rights?
The Constitution provides children and adults with the core protections of the right to remain silent and the right to counsel. We applaud the lawmakers who enacted the Child Interrogation Protection Act to make these rights a reality. We urge them to stand by it.
Jessica Feierman is an attorney and senior managing director at Juvenile Law Center.
Emily Virgin is an attorney and director of advocacy and government affairs at Human Rights for Kids.