False Confessions and Children


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Researchers in the area of wrongful convictions have found that children are particularly susceptible to giving false confessions.[1] Once in custody, children’s psychological development, intellectual difficulties, and mental health issues make them vulnerable to coercive police interrogation tactics, which often leads children to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit.[2]

During interrogations, police often use the same coercive interrogation strategies on children that they use on adults.[3] This results in children not only being more likely to waive their Miranda rights than adults, but also being more likely to falsely confess to crimes than adults.[4] The most commonly used interrogation technique in the United States, the Reid technique, inherently coerces and deceives suspects.[5] This inherent nature of the Reid technique combined with children’s vulnerabilities and susceptibilities “has led to an unacceptably high rate of false confessions among juvenile suspects.”[6] According to the National Registry of Exonerations, thirty-four percent of exonerated children under the age of eighteen falsely confessed to a crime compared to ten percent of adults.[7] Other studies of exonerees have found that forty-four percent of children falsely confessed to a crime “compared to 13 percent of adults.”[8] As these studies show, children have a much higher likelihood to falsely confess to crimes when confronted with the same interrogation tactics used against adults.

Children with certain vulnerabilities, such as younger children, children with mental illness, or children with intellectual disabilities, also have higher rates of falsely confessing compared to other children.  For example, a higher percentage of children under the age of fourteen falsely confessed to a crime compared to sixteen- or seventeen-year-old children.[9] Research by the National Registry of Exonerations also showed a difference in false confessions between children with mental illness or intellectual disability and children without either disability. The vast majority (79 percent) of children under the age of eighteen who had a mental illness or intellectual disability falsely confessed.[10] While only about a quarter (27 percent) of children without a mental illness or intellectual disability falsely confessed to a crime.[11] These vulnerabilities result in many children waiving their Miranda rights without truly understanding “what they are giving up” and the potential consequences for waiving their rights, such as false confessions.[12]


[1] Ariel Spierer, The Right to Remain a Child: The Impermissibility of the Reid Technique in Juvenile Interrogations, 92 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1719, 1723 (2017).

[2] Jason Mandelbaum & Angela Crossman, No illusions: Developmental considerations in adolescent false confessions, Am. Psych. Ass’n (Dec. 2014), https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2014/12/adolescent-false-confessions.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Spierer, supra note 1 at 1719.

[6] Id.

[7] Age and Mental Status of Exonerated Defendants Who Confessed, Nat’l Registry of Exonerations (Apr. 2022) https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Age%20and%20Mental%20Status%20FINAL%20CHART.pdf.

[8] Mandelbaum & Crossman, supra note 2.

[9] According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 78 percent of exonerated children under the age of fourteen falsely confessed to the crime. This compares to 54 percent of exonerated fourteen- and fifteen-year-old children and 27 percent of exonerated 16- and 17-year-old children. Age and Mental Status of Exonerated Defendants Who Confessed, National Registry of Exonerations (Feb. 2019) https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Age%20and%20Mental%20Status%20FINAL%20CHART.pdf.

[10] Age and Mental Status of Exonerated Defendants Who Confessed, Nat’l Registry of Exonerations (Apr. 2022) https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Age%20and%20Mental%20Status%20FINAL%20CHART.pdf.

[11] Id.

[12] M. Dyan McGuire, Miranda is not Enough: What Every Parent in the United States Should Know About Protecting Their Child, 2J. of L. and Crim. Just. 299, 303 (2014)

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