Lawyers should be present when police interrogate minors

The interrogation process for minors will likely take longer if lawyers must be present. But that’s preferable to the consequences of a child’s false confession.

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Illinois legislators are considering a proposal to require a lawyer to be present when a minor is interrogated by police.

Illinois legislators are considering a proposal to require a lawyer to be present when a minor is interrogated by police.

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Young children, particularly teenagers, might feel grown-up, but their brains are still developing and they process and navigate stressful situations much differently than adults.

So being arrested and interrogated by law enforcement can be particularly scary. That’s especially true when minors are taught to obey authority figures and may not fully comprehend the seriousness of the situation, a brief on juvenile interrogations by Fair and Just Prosecution, a network of local prosecutors, points out.

Kids will often say what they think they need to say, as quickly as they can, so they can go back home to their parents.

For these and other reasons, the presence of a lawyer should be mandatory when juveniles are interrogated by police, as some Illinois lawmakers have proposed.

Editorial

Editorial

Research shows that 90% of children taken into custody waive their Miranda rights. Or, they might decline an attorney, as a 15-year-old boy did before confessing to a shooting he didn’t commit in Waukegan.

The boy, who was questioned in the north suburb last year, was told he had a right to a lawyer — but the officer interrogating him about the shooting of a Dollar General store clerk also mentioned that it’d be awhile before one would show up, video footage reveals.

In fact, the boy was out of town when the clerk was shot — yet police were able to wrangle a false confession out of him in less than an hour.

The teen’s ordeal, which WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell has reported on extensively, has prompted discussion among Illinois lawmakers of a bill requiring a lawyer to be present for police interrogations of those under 18.

Law enforcement groups don’t think having a lawyer in the room is needed, arguing that an attorney can keep a child from talking and that parents, who must be informed about arrests, have the responsibility to hire an attorney.

But what about the parent who is too overwhelmed or distraught to manage the situation? What happens when a parent can’t be tracked down?

A mother and father’s support is crucial, as the FJP’s brief notes, but they alone “are not a sufficient safeguard, and are no substitute for legal counsel.”

Minors under 15 who are charged with murder or sexual assault are now automatically assigned a lawyer under Illinois law. Expanding that practice to all suspects under 18 who are undergoing interrogations is the right next step.

Consider this: Among individuals who were later exonerated for crimes that took place before they turned 14, 86% had falsely confessed, according to the FJP brief.

The interrogation process for minors will likely take more time if lawyers must be present. But that’s preferable by far than the consequences — in time, money and emotional distress — of a child’s false confession.

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