Understand the Problem
There can be no doubt about it: Young people are simply more likely to be wrongfully convicted than adults. There are many reasons for this, many of which are rooted in the special developmental vulnerabilities of children. Children and teenagers are categorically more suggestible, compliant, and vulnerable to outside pressures than adults. They are less able to weigh risks and consequences; less likely to understand their legal rights; and less likely to understand what attorneys do or how attorneys can help them. The CWCY is aimed at helping wrongfully convicted kids and remedying the root causes of wrongful convictions of youth, with a special focus on the following issues:
False confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, accounting for roughly 25% of all convictions that were later overturned based on DNA evidence. Indeed, as the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged in 2009, "There is mounting empirical evidence that these pressures [associated with custodial police interrogation] can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed."
Citing the CWCY’s work, the high court concluded in 2011 that the risk of false confession is "all the more troubling…and all the more acute" when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile. Its conclusion has been backed up by a slew of research. One leading study of 125 proven false confession cases found that 63% of false confessors were under the age of twenty-five and 32% were under eighteen. Another respected study of 340 exonerations found that juveniles under the age of eighteen were three times as likely to falsely confess as adults. Leading law enforcement organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, also agree that children are particularly likely to give false confessions during the pressure-cooker of police interrogation.
The witnesses presented against children are often children themselves. The same interrogation tactics that can cause youthful suspects to falsely confess, however, can also cause youthful witnesses to falsely implicate their peers. Those witnesses may be particularly vulnerable even to unintentional suggestion during police interviews, line-ups, and other eyewitness identification procedures, due to an inherent desire to please authority figures or a simple desire to end the unpleasant experience of being at the police station. The result is that – often at the urging of police – some youth give statements blaming other kids so that they can go home.
Time and again, researchers have concluded that most youth – even those who might be considered "street-smart" – simply do not understand their Miranda rights to counsel and to remain silent. Accordingly, these children do not exercise those essential rights and are thus left alone during police interrogation, without the assistance of counsel, a friendly adult, or their parents. Too often, the child's resulting statement is involuntary or unreliable.
Overcharging, Transfer, and False Guilty Pleas
Once a young person has been charged with a serious criminal act, so-called "transfer" laws often require those charges to be heard in adult criminal court, where the defendant faces long prison sentences. To avoid risking such sentences, youth often agree to plead guilty in exchange for less prison time – even if they did not actually commit the crimes in question. Indeed, one leading study of 125 false confession cases revealed 14 cases in which innocent defendants eventually pled guilty to crimes they did not commit (11%). Of the first 289 DNA exonerations, similarly, 28 innocent defendants had pled guilty (10%). It stands to reason that the rates of false guilty pleas are probably much higher even than these statistics reflect, since 97% of federal convictions and 94% of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
It can be very hard to represent a child or teenager. Youthful defendants may have particular difficulty understanding criminal proceedings or actively participating in the process. They may be disinclined to trust anyone they don’t know – even their own attorney. For this reason, attorneys who represent children need to take special care and extra time to build rapport with youthful clients. Attorneys should also be attuned to the special issues that children’s cases present, including suggestibility, adolescent development, and juvenile false confessions. Too often, however, attorneys fail to take these steps and thus fail to prepare adequate defenses for their youngest and most vulnerable clients.
Wrongful Adjudications in Juvenile Court
There are many reasons to believe that juvenile court can be a breeding ground for wrongful convictions. Juvenile court culture discourages zealous advocacy in favor of the "best interests of the minor," meaning that innocent defendants may not have their cases fully heard. Fact-finding in juvenile court is usually performed by judges who may already be familiar with the minor through previous court proceedings – meaning that the judges may assume the guilt of the accused based on prior bad acts. Lesser penalties in juvenile court, too, provide powerful incentives for accused children to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid more serious charges in adult court.
Access to Post-Conviction Relief
In many states, defendants who are adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court do not have access to the types of post-conviction legal vehicles that have traditionally been used by adult defendants to exonerate themselves. In Illinois, for example, the courts have specifically held that juveniles are barred from seeking relief under the state’s Post-Conviction Act. The result is a contorted system in which children may be more likely to be wrongfully convicted – but in many cases, they are less able than adults to reopen their cases in order to prove their innocence.