Research Says Juveniles Need Their Own Miranda Rights

Studies suggest they're "too complex" for kids to understand, spurring some police departments to simplify the words they use when arresting them.
by | December 2017
(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Anyone who’s watched a cop show on television in recent decades has a decent understanding -- or at least a memory -- of the rights accorded to those arrested: the right to an attorney, the right to remain silent and all the other protections given to the accused over the past half-century, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona.

But juvenile offenders often don’t have a clear understanding of what those rights entail. Back in 2013, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that Miranda warnings are “too complex and advanced” for most juveniles. The group recommended that “police and other law enforcement authorities should utilize simplified Miranda warnings developed specifically for use with juvenile suspects.”

Now, the sheriff’s office in King County, Wash., has done just that. Working collaboratively with the public defender’s office and a community nonprofit, the sheriff consulted with brain researchers to come up with simplified warnings, which were then focus-grouped among teens. “For the most part, we have always done the same warning for kids that we do for adults,” says Sheriff John Urquhart. “We came to the conclusion, as we know now, that kids’ brains develop slower. To be fair, we thought we should revise the warning so that they understand what their constitutional rights are.”

Juvenile offenders in King County are now told repeatedly, and in different phrases, that they have a right to an attorney, underscoring that the attorney’s services are available free of charge. They not only are told that they can remain silent, but are offered an explanation that this means “you don’t have to say anything. It’s OK if you don’t want to talk to me.”

Urquhart says he’s getting the same kind of pushback that law enforcement has gotten ever since the advent of Miranda warnings -- namely, that no kid will ever confess with those kinds of protections. The new warnings are just being rolled out, but so far there’s no evidence that they’re hindering cases. The Seattle Police Department -- the only force in the state larger than the King County Sheriff’s Office -- is now considering adopting them as well.

Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescent psychiatry at Temple University, describes the warnings as a “valuable change in policy.” Nevertheless, he argues that even if kids have a better grasp of their rights, they generally lack the judgment or foresight to think through the implications of the decisions they make, including whether to stay silent. Like the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, he recommends that an adult who cares about the child’s welfare, such as an attorney or a relative, should be present during interrogations. That’s already standard practice in many departments.