CJRC Institute for Excellence in Justice - February19, 2016

Professor Barry Feld, University of Minnesota Law School



Real Interrogation: What Happens when Cops Question Kids

Presenter:  Barry Feld, Professor of Law – University of Minnesota Law School

By Moriah Lieberman, CJRC Undergraduate Intern

Professor Barry Feld   Barry Feld - Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School— discussed his new book Kids, Cops and Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room during his talk, “Real Interrogation: What Happens when Cops Question Kids”.  Dr. Ryan King, a professor at The Ohio State University, and Linda Janes, the Assistant Director at the Ohio Department of Youth Services, provided follow up commentary.

Professor Feld has had an interest in youth justice since he discovered that it was a niche in academia not heavily researched.  He began his current research after discovering a disconnect between the law and developmental psychology. In numerous cases, the Supreme Court has recognized that juveniles are more susceptible to false confessions than adults.   According to developmental psychologists, kids are more immature, impulsive, and prioritize short-term gains over long-term gains, causing their decision-making skills to be faulty.   Despite this recognition, the Supreme Court has declined to change the standards of who can waive their Miranda Rights, leaving juveniles more susceptible to false confessions.  Younger children are not able to understand the words or concepts in the Miranda Rights, even when the Miranda Rights are put in terms to help children understand them better.  Children under 15-years-old misunderstood one or more of the four concepts in the Miranda Rights.

Due to the disconnect between law and developmental psychology, Professor Feld wanted to determine whether false confessions were more likely to happen to teenagers.  He examined 307 police interrogations of 16 and 17 year olds accused of felonies in Minnesota. He looked at a variety of variables, including the allegations, when and where the interrogation took place, and if the child invoked their Miranda Rights. 

He also looked at the interrogation tactics the police used. There is both a maximization tactic, which aims to make people feel helpless and a minimization tactic which aims to lessen people’s guilt and offer sympathy and understanding.  Both tactics aim to get a person to confess to a crime.  In contrast, the UK uses an investigative interview style in which the police have a conversation with the suspect to determine what happened.  This conversational style has been successful, with the majority of people confessing their crimes early and easily.  This approach also calls into question whether or not the psychologically manipulative interrogation styles American police use are necessary.

In Feld’s study, 90% of the children were formally arrested and two thirds were placed in detention centers.  The questioning took place in detention centers as well as in squad cars, schools, and in children’s homes. 

Feld described the precarious situation police officers are in since the officers need to read the Miranda Rights to the suspect but do not want the suspect to invoke their rights.  Therefore, there is a great concern that police officers read the rights in such a way to predispose the suspect to give away their rights.  Professor Feld found that there is a spectrum to how police officers act.  Some police officers try to influence the suspects by telling them that reading the Miranda Rights is just a “formality,” or by waiving their rights, the suspect has the opportunity “to tell their story”.  Other police officers, however, try to ensure the suspect understands the concepts in the Miranda Rights.  The police officers also varied in their delivery of the Miranda Rights— some police officers told the suspect the Miranda Rights immediately and other police officers read suspects their rights after the booking questions.  Interestingly, the suspects who did not waive their Miranda Rights received harsher sentences. 

About 92.8% of the youth in the interrogations studied waived their Miranda Rights.  In comparison, more than 80% of adults waive their Miranda rights.  The youth in the study who had a prior felony arrest were more likely to invoke their rights.  Out of the 307 interrogations, the majority of suspects (58.6%) confessed very quickly.  The quick confessions make it unlikely that they were false confessions.

Feld recommended three policy changes to interrogations. First, youth should be guaranteed counsel.  Because youth do not understand the Miranda Rights, as exemplified by Grisso’s study, they should be guaranteed counsel.   Second, interrogations should be limited in time.  The majority of people confess quickly and the majority of false confessions happen when the interrogations last longer than 6 hours.   Third, interrogations must be recorded which will ensure the police are not coercive and that people receive their Miranda Rights.  Professor Feld will continue to raise awareness about the importance of protecting juvenile rights when it come to criminal interrogation.