Opinion: Interrogation of Children Should Be Part of Police Reform Discussion

Interrogation
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Typically, a child can let you know what kind of pizza to order for dinner and what flavor of soda to go with it. But if that child is put in a cold dark room with three law enforcement officers to be questioned about a robbery or murder that they have no knowledge of, there must be an adult in the room to protect the child’s best interest before they answer questions in a way that could change their life forever.

This is why as necessary police reforms are discussed and decided, legislators must pass the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act.

Did you know that every day in Maryland children in contact with the legal justice system are being questioned without a parent or attorney present? This has serious consequences, with children who face criminal charges, prosecution and incarceration being denied the basic due process rights that adults are entitled to. Children need their right to a lawyer, too.

Children are likely to obey authority figures like police because the decision-making part of the brain is still developing during their youth and beyond – until age 25, in fact — and prioritize short-term benefits (saying anything to leave questioning) and ignoring long-term consequences (confessing to things they haven’t done).

Research on adolescent development clearly shows that children have social and emotional traits that differ from adults, and without the same level of reasoning. During this crucial time of human development that we all experience, the brain develops its strength, allowing for multitasking, an increased ability to problem solve and the ability to process more complex information.

This social and emotional immaturity makes children vulnerable to reacting to the pressure of a police interrogation and falsely confessing, even when they are innocent. Under pressure and without the support of a lawyer, children are also more likely to falsely implicate their innocent peers, which spreads the damage done to even more children.

How does this show up in real life? We hear of situations like a student being pulled out of science class, taken to an empty classroom, and being questioned by the school resource officers about an incident that happened in the cafeteria the previous day. Or of a teenager walking home from the store who is stopped by the police on patrol and asked if they can take a ride with them to ask a few questions about a neighborhood disturbance.

In 2019 in the affluent suburb of Chevy Chase, a 10-year-old Black fourth-grader with disabilities was questioned by law enforcement without parental or attorney involvement because he played with toy money on the school bus.

The Montgomery County public school system admitted that police should not have been called in the incident and the child’s mother is fighting to address district policy so that it doesn’t happen again to another child.

The vulnerability of children without access to a lawyer when they are questioned is reinforced by how in recent years there has been a rise of cases of adults who were exonerated after being wrongly convicted as a child. One of the reasons why is that children waive their Miranda rights at a rate of 90%.

We can end this effect of locking up innocent children and decrease the number of Maryland children who are behind bars by passing the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act. This important legislation adds teeth to numerous landmark Supreme Court decisions that have held that children have the right to remain silent and that a child’s age is relevant factor in determining whether a child is in custody.

The bill, first introduced in Maryland’s 2020 General Assembly’s legislative session, has a few key purposes.

First, it establishes that if a law enforcement officer takes a child into custody, the officer must immediately notify the child’s parent or guardian and provide notice of these attempts. Secondly, age-appropriate language must be developed to advise a child of their rights to remain silent and to an attorney. Lastly, a law enforcement officer may not conduct a custodial interrogation of a child before the child has the chance to talk with an attorney, either provided by the Office of the Public Defender or privately retained by a parent or guardian.

Children are our most vulnerable population, and we must protect their right to due process when they are most at risk of being caught in the incarceration machine.

As we re-envision the role of police in our communities and in our schools, we cannot forget about children who are taken alone and questioned by law enforcement. Passing the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act (SB 136/HB 315) is foundational to building a more just system in Maryland.

— JUSTIN NALLEY

The writer is an education policy analyst with the ACLU of Maryland. He can be reached at [email protected].