JJIE: Interrogations Encourage False Confessions from Students

By Judge George Timberlake, Ret.

Among the many advances in juvenile justice reform propelled by a developmental approach is the reduction of the school-to-prison pipeline. Across the country, zero tolerance statutes and strict school suspension and expulsion practices are being scaled back. Positive school environment policies are reducing the number of school disciplinary referrals, and restorative justice practices are improving conflict resolutions.

But, as in many large and complex systems affecting juvenile justice, there is still work to be done to diffuse the knowledge gained from research. Schools across America face daily mysteries as to who is guilty of rule or law infractions, and administrators are tasked with seeking the perpetrators. Like police agencies, they use information from students and often rely on admissions of guilt to “solve the case.” They sometimes adopt police practices, including interrogation techniques.

When confessions are extracted from suspects, it often ends the investigation because law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and juries as well as laypeople believe that confessions are statements against self-interest and are unlikely to be said unless true.

The problem with that logic is that false confessions are not at all unusual. As the hundreds of overturned cases in recent years demonstrate, the phenomenon of people confessing to crimes they did not commit is real and replicated by studies around the world.

Causes for such statements of guilt are varied, but one major contributing factor has been interrogation practices. Crime novel readers and movie and TV audiences will recognize the components of the “Reid Technique,” a manualized approach to eliciting confessions. Principal steps include confrontation, repetition, refusal to accept denials, providing false “evidence,” suggesting a confession will reduce the possible punishment and the use of alternative questions about the same set of presumed facts.

Research offers overwhelming proof that these techniques result in far more false confessions by the mentally ill, people with developmental disabilities and juveniles. Youth are impulsive and may simply believe — as is sometimes implied or overtly stated — that they will be allowed to go home if they just answer the question in the way the interrogator — whether law enforcement or school personnel — is requesting.

I was surprised and disappointed to read in a recent commentary in The New Yorker that the Reid Technique is being taught to school administrators, including some in my home state of Illinois. The article is headlined: “Why are educators learning how to interrogate their students?” I can’t think of any legitimate reason to justify it.

If a crime has been committed on school grounds, they should leave interrogations to the police. If they’re just trying to enforce rules and school culture, it is a mistake to approach discussions with students with an adversarial attitude. The whole idea of “interrogation” is contrary to a developmentally appropriate approach, a restorative justice approach and a procedural justice approach.

The guilt-presumptive and confrontational interrogation process results in false confessions from adults also, but juveniles make false confessions at a much higher relative rate. The International Association of Chiefs of Police recognized the danger of prevalent practices and created its own guide to interrogation in 2012. That guide cautions against even mildly coercive questioning of youth.

The number of overturned verdicts and vacated sentences coupled with the hundreds of millions of dollars paid by taxpayers to those wrongly convicted has led to laws requiring video recording of the police questioning of suspects. Initially opposed by many law enforcement bodies, video is now voluntarily instituted by many agencies because it obviates note-taking during the inquiry, increases accountability, provides instant replay for review, reduces court testimony to defend practices and improves trust.

As research shows heightened risk for false confessions by youth, limits or safeguards should be instituted for school use of coercive interrogation techniques. “Police-Induced Confessions: Risk Factors and Recommendation,” a white paper published by the American Psychology-Law Society, advises developmental characteristics and limitations should be part of any training, and video recording of questioning also can protect children.

Given the much higher incidence of false confession by juveniles, my opinion is that the researchers’ suggestions should apply if school personnel decide to adopt police interrogation practices. Video recording can provide another safety valve for the school-to-prison pipeline. If school principals want to play the part of police detectives, they should be willing to do it in front of a camera.

Read at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange