WASHINGTON – The eight teenagers clad in orange jumpsuits sit in a circle inside the chapel at the D.C. jail.
They’ve all been charged with or convicted of felonies, but they’re here on this Thursday afternoon not to talk crime or life on the streets, but to read and discuss a book and a poem, then write poetry.
For the inmates, all juveniles charged as adults, the weekly reading group of the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop provides a respite from the doldrums of life on the inside.
But more than that, Free Minds members say, the club transforms lives.
Like many of the books read during the weekly jail session, tonight’s selection focuses on topics close to the teens’ lives: “Two the Hard Way” by Travis Hunter tells the story of two brothers who live in a dangerous Atlanta housing project, and one of them is released from prison after serving two years for a crime he did not commit.
As the session begins, Tara Libert, the co-founder and executive director of Free Minds, leads the teens in meditation:
“We just want to get rid of all the stress of the outside world so we can open our minds, relax and really focus on your creativity, so today we’ll just put our feet on the ground – ah – breathe deeply, close our eyes … and just take yourself, progressively relax all your muscles and breathe really deeply and focus on breathing in with the good – hope, joy, love – and breathe out any kind of stress. If you’re worried about your case, breathe all of that out and just for this moment, you are completely free.”
For a minute, the chapel goes silent.
“OK, and slowly bring yourself out,” Libert says. “How beautiful was that? How often do you guys get total silence?”
The teenage boys take turns explaining what Free Minds means to them.
“Your body’s not free, but your mind is,” one of the inmates says.
“Books empower our minds,” another says.
The weekly sessions are at the D.C. jail, where youths sentenced as adults are housed until they turn 18, but Free Minds’ work does not end there.
When the youths are transferred to federal prisons around the country as adults, they remain members of Free Minds, and the club continues sending them books, along with a monthly newsletter featuring essays and poems by fellow members.
After their release, former inmates are still considered members of the club and Free Minds offers them internships and help with resumes and job-seeking skills.
Every Tuesday, a Free Minds representative meets individually with each teen to check in on him. This may mean finding out why one of them is sitting alone and seems angry or offering to write a letter to a judge on behalf of another inmate facing sentencing.
And at monthly “Write Nights,” volunteers from the community – in the past they’ve included college students, lawyers, heads of corporations and public defenders, among others – offer written feedback on inmates’ poems. The poems are then typed, printed and returned to the Free Minds members on the inside with the feedback. “Poet ambassadors,” Free Minds members who have been released from prison, also read poems from inmates at the monthly sessions.
At the recent jail session, the inmates read from and discuss “Two the Hard Way” before turning their attention to reading and writing poetry.
The poem they read, “Mommy,” was written by a Free Minds member and former inmate who served seven years, two of them in solitary confinement, and it focuses on his mother, who was addicted to drugs.
“The most beautiful flower on God’s green earth, yet at the same time, the most wretched weed,” the poem reads.
It calls the mother “strong for being able to raise a boy to a man all on your own, yet weak for falling victim to temptation.”
The young inmates ponder the poem.
What does the poem’s author compare his mother to when she’s on drugs? Libert asks. When she’s not on drugs?
The boys then try their hand at writing their own poems. Tonight’s topic: addiction.
One writes of his own addiction to K2, a form of synthetic marijuana, saying, “This is about me. K2, K2, it’s what I love to do…”
Another writes of “Squirrel,” an addict he knew: “I am disgusted. He probably could have been an engineer. Instead, I think he’s going to overdose.”
Another inmate writes of “Aunt Missy,” an addict:
“She wears nice clothes, designer, but she stinks. She’s gone, way gone in her addiction, like, it’s far. I can tell because she’ll do anything for it, anything¸ everything. Rob, steal, use the blade she always has with her. I think it’s her fault. I look down on her because you can control that, I think.”
Other inmates gathered in the chapel, where three big, wooden crosses stand, clap.
Free Minds has brought books and a whole lot more into the lives of some 700 juvenile inmates since the non-profit started in 2002.
The book club wouldn’t exist but for four years’ of correspondence about books between co-founder and book club coordinator Kelli Taylor and Glen McGinnis, who was convicted of murder and executed in Texas in 2000.
In 1996, Taylor, then a producer in the Washington bureau of the Australian Broadcasting Corp., received an unsolicited letter from McGinnis about the number of blacks and Latinos on death row. Taylor went on to produce a documentary about McGinnis and others on death row in America for crimes they committed as juveniles.
Taylor and McGinnis, who was convicted of shooting a dry cleaner service clerk during a robbery, developed a friendship and began corresponding about books she read and sent to him to read.
Today, Taylor and Libert refer to McGinnis as “the first Free Minds member.”
Taylor says she saw his dramatic personal and educational growth through his letters as they corresponded about everything from “Harry Potter” to books by Toni Morrison and John Grisham.
“If he had been the person he was when he died back when he was 17, [the murder] wouldn’t have happened,” she said.
She also got to know parts of McGinnis’ story. He was raised by a crack-addicted mother who physically abused him, was sexually abused by his stepfather and physically abused by other men his mother brought home. His formal education ended at age 11 and he sometimes lived on the streets when he wasn’t incarcerated as a juvenile for theft and trespassing.
On the night of the robbery and murder, McGinnis had told his mother he would get money for her after she said she desperately needed it.
Taylor says she witnessed the power of books and reading, and McGinnis did too.
“When he did become educated, he saw the world in such a different way,” she said. “He saw what he could have become and how his life could have been, whereas when he was 12, 13 and enduring all this abuse, he couldn’t see any way out.”
After corresponding with McGinnis, Taylor volunteered as a mentor in the Arlington (Va.) County jail, while Libert, a fellow news producer whom Taylor knew, was volunteering in a family literacy program in the D.C. jail.
In retrospect, Taylor says meeting and corresponding with McGinnis led to her work with Free Minds.
“It wasn’t something that I set out to do, for sure,” she said. “I just believe it was like a calling, what I was meant to do, because it just so came out of the blue. It wasn’t something I pursued or anything.”
Taylor and Libert say it’s their belief in the potential of the young inmates that sustains them as they juggle the jail sessions, the monthly Write Nights, sending books and corresponding with 200 Free Minds members in 46 prisons in 23 states, and re-entry efforts for members who have been released from prison.
Typically, the Free Minds members have been convicted of crimes involving a weapon or violence, including armed robbery, carjacking, manslaughter and homicide.
Libert knows some people write off the juvenile offenders.
“People say it’s too late, and our message is it’s never too late and with the right support, they can turn their lives around and contribute to society,” she said. “The challenge for us as a community is to provide that right support.
“They’re unbelievably resilient and they have hope so we’ve got to have hope. ...First, it’s a challenge to help them open their eyes to another world, so it’s like, ‘Can I find that right book that’s going to engage them because the books are really another way of living?”
Libert said of the payoff: “I love seeing when the light bulb goes on and the kid reads his first book and has a passport to the world, you know, the world is opened up to him.”
Free Minds members help select the book via “book ballot.” Among their choices: the “Harry Potter” books, “Pay It Forward” by Catherine Ryan Hyde; “Makes Me Wanna Holler” by black former Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall, who recalls his childhood and rehabilitation in prison; “A Question of Freedom” by R. Dwayne Betts, a black author who writes of a carjacking he participated in and his nine years in prison in which he discovered the transformative power of books; and “The Freedom Writers Diary,” in which a teacher inspires Long Beach, Calif., high school students to keep diaries of the violence, homelessness, racism and abuse that surrounded them.
Free Minds members say immersing them in books – and following up with them through their incarceration in prison and after their release – has a huge impact in their lives.
And Libert says that’s reflected in the recidivism rate for members: It’s 26 percent – with half of those for parole violations, and only 1 percent for violent crimes – within one year of release. Elsewhere, recidivism rates for those imprisoned as juveniles range from about 70 percent to about 90 percent, Libert says.
For Michael Kemp, Free Minds made all the difference.
Kemp, 23, was jailed in D.C. in 2007 for possession of a firearm. He says he attended his first Free Minds session to get him off his cellblock for a while.
But then he found he got into the books, the discussions, the poetry writing – and he kept coming back to the sessions.
When he was shipped out to federal prisons in Tennessee, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Ohio during his five years of incarceration, Free Minds stayed in touch, sending books, its monthly newsletter and birthday cards.
“It was like, damn, man, they’re really sticking with me,” Kemp said.
Now, he serves as the lead “poet ambassador” for Free Minds, connecting D.C. audiences with Free Minds poets, and serves as a spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, which strives to end the practice of trying and sentencing youths in the adult criminal justice system.
Speaking of Free Minds, Kemp said: “It was one of the best things to happen for me, you know, once I got the opportunity to help change my life for real. It really opened my mind up [and] not to care what anybody said to hold me back.”
WASHINGTON – Jason Baldwin hopes to spare others from growing up, growing old – and dying – in prison.
Baldwin, who was sentenced to life without parole at 16 for a crime he did not commit, served 18 years and since his release in 2011 has become a crusader against sentencing youths to life without parole. He is one of the “West Memphis Three” – who as teenagers in 1994 were convicted of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark.
The 36-year-old Baldwin, who now lives in Seattle, brought his message to the nation’s capital Wednesday night at an annual reception and fundraiser of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national organization that seeks to abolish life-without-parole sentences for all youth.
“I cannot believe that we are a society where we would place no value in people who have made a mistake -- no matter how terrible -- at a young age,” Baldwin told JJIE.org.
He spoke of convicted murderers he met in prison who in 1994 showed no remorse and who he believed at the time deserved to spend life in prison.
But he said he has seen them transformed over the years.
“I’ve seen them grow, I’ve seen them mature, I’ve seen them take advantage of any opportunity they can to teach themselves, to learn things, to nurture and to be caring and compassionate,” Baldwin said.
He recalls sitting in prison in Arkansas with other inmates convicted of murder.
“I saw them. They led very respectable, responsible lives in prison,” he said. “They took opportunities to educate themselves, to help one another. And that’s the key right there. They helped each other. They helped me. They helped anybody they could, and they cared about people.
“So now these guys who did those things, who exhibited no regard for life, turned around and they showed care, they showed empathy. So they developed those somewhere along the way and will help people and care for people and, if put in the situation they were in to earn their time, they would never do [the same crime] again.”
Baldwin says he’s hopeful society will ultimately decide against life sentences without parole for juveniles.
He points to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Miller vs. Alabama, in which the high court ruled last year that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.
Baldwin, one of four honorees at the CFSY event, found a receptive audience, including people who had been incarcerated as juveniles but have since been released, families of those who have been incarcerated since they were juveniles as well as lawyers and advocates for children.
He says he intends to continue campaigning against life-without-parole sentences for juveniles until they’re abolished. Baldwin said he has earned an associate’s degree and plans to write a memoir before returning to school to receive a bachelor’s degree, after which he hopes to attend law school.
Jody Kent Lavy, CFSY’s director and national coordinator, said at the reception that a lot of progress has been made in the past year toward eliminating life-without-parole sentences for children but that big challenges remain.
Lavy noted the Miller vs. Alabama decision and said, “Children who were told they were worth nothing more than death in prison have lawyers and have people fighting for them to get them back into court.”
She pointed out that Delaware, Texas and Wyoming have abolished life without parole for children within the past year.
And, Lavy said, “More policymakers and judges than ever before understand the fundamental differences between children and adults, understand that it is inappropriate and irresponsible to sentence our children to die in prison.”
The Supreme Court has noted juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and young people are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.
But the progress notwithstanding, Lavy said state legislatures have passed legislation sanctioning life without parole for children and that some states, including Pennsylvania and Louisiana, have said the Miller decision is not retroactive, meaning it wouldn’t apply to those in prison now who were sentenced as juveniles before the decision.
The others honored at the CFSY reception were:
Sara Kruzan, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in California when she was 16 for killing someone who reportedly had sexually abused her for years. Kruzan was released Oct. 31 after a California judge made her immediately eligible for parole. While incarcerated, Kruzan, described as a model prisoner, had mentored women inside and outside prison, earned an associate’s degree and is working on a bachelor’s degree.
Participant Media, whose feature film, TV, documentary and other forms of media seek to inspire social change. Participant’s films include “Lincoln,” “The Help” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” In connection with the release of “Snitch,” the media company collaborated with CFSY on several public education projects, including videos and infographics.
WilmerHale, an international law firm whose attorneys visited nearly every prisoner in Virginia affected by the Miller vs. Alabama decision. The firm helped develop legal strategies and filed the first briefs on behalf of clients in Virginia as a leader in CFSY’s project to implement the Supreme Court decision in that state. WilmerHale has long been known for its pro bono work.
[This story is the first in JJIE's series focusing on juvenile indigent defense. Read more from the series here.]
A single phone call made from a trailer home in rural Arizona, where 15-year-old Gerald “Jerry” Gault lived with his family, wound up indelibly altering the landscape of juvenile justice in America.
As Jerry recalled, he grabbed the phone from a visiting friend and told him to get out, after the friend made an obscene phone call to a woman in the neighborhood.
His mother, who had been working when he was whisked away, located him that night at the Gila County Children's Detention Home, but was forbidden to take him home.
A week later, a county judge sentenced Jerry to almost six years in a juvenile detention facility. (By contrast, an adult charged with the same offense – being in the presence of or hearing someone using “vulgar, abusive or obscene language” – would have faced a maximum sentence of two months in jail.)
After further legal twists, including failed writ of habeas corpus petitions by Gault’s parents in Arizona courts, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court’s landmark 8-1 decision in May 1967 freed Gault and established that under the U.S. Constitution, juveniles in delinquency proceedings are guaranteed many of the same due process rights as adults in criminal trials. Among these are the right to counsel, the right to timely notification of charges, the right to confront witnesses, the right to appeal, and the right to avoid self-incrimination.
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Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about juvenile indigent defense, including:
The majority opinion, written by Justice Abe Fortas, offered biting commentary on the state of juvenile justice as it existed in Arizona. "Under our Constitution the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court. …Due process is the primary and indispensable foundation of individual freedom," Fortas wrote.
But today, nearly a half-century after the Gault case began, due process rights remain elusive for thousands of indigent juvenile defendants facing felony charges that could lead to years of incarceration.
“Many, if not most, juvenile courts still operate in the pre-Gault mode, as if the defense attorney is irrelevant and unnecessary. As a result, real lawyering cannot occur, and the fair administration of justice is impeded,” the Washington-based National Juvenile Defender Center says in a list of systemic issues that affect representation of juvenile defendants.
The reasons for the gaps between the ideals of Gault and the realities in American courtrooms vary greatly, juvenile justice experts and advocates say.
They include a lack of resources to provide adequate juvenile indigent defense, a patchwork of disparate juvenile justice systems and local laws throughout the country, and, in many courtrooms, a rushed, assembly-line style of juvenile justice.
Right from the start, many indigent juvenile defendants face a decided disadvantage because counsel are often appointed after the initial detention hearing, in which the court decides whether young offenders will be held.
“The idea that a kid can be in front of a judge and could be locked up with no lawyer there to defend him – I think most people are shocked by that notion,” said Timothy Curry, NJDC’s managing attorney. “The fact that that happens every day in courtrooms around the country is just the reality.”
And research has shown that defendants held pending trial are far more likely to be convicted than those who aren’t held, and, if convicted, those who had been held pending trial are far more likely to be incarcerated than those who were not held.
In some jurisdictions, it’s permissible for a prosecutor, in the absence of a defense attorney, to make a plea offer at the initial hearing, and if the child does not accept the plea, he or she may be detained.
“So you have kids around the country pleading guilty to crimes without ever seeing a lawyer, having no real understanding of the consequences involved with that or whether there was a defense or whether they were actually guilty of what they’re being charged with,” Curry said.
That’s no small matter, as a juvenile adjudication – the term used if a court finds a juvenile committed an act with which he or she is charged -- can have long-term consequences, including losing eligibility for student loans, public housing and military service. An adjudication can also affect immigration status and employment prospects. (If juveniles are tried and convicted in adult court, that can affect voting rights as well.)
“The idea that the worst thing that’s going to happen to a kid is you’re going to put him on probation a few months and everything is going to go away is just false,” Curry said. “Kids lives are severely hampered, particularly in education and employment, by juvenile adjudication.”
Across the country, experts say, many juvenile defendants also quickly waive their right to counsel with little concept of the magnitude of that decision, and before even discussing the ramifications with a lawyer.
That’s a big mistake, says Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategies Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.
“If I were king, I would not allow any juvenile to waive his or her right to counsel on the simple grounds that I’m not sure that they can make a sufficiently informed decision in that regard,” Lubow said.
He says a lot of waivers result not from juveniles concluding they don’t need a lawyer because they plan to plead guilty, but because of adults “manipulating children.”
Such manipulation to coax a child into waiving the right to a lawyer often flows from the belief that juvenile court serves a paternalistic role guided by what it sees as the best interests of the child, Lubow says: “So whether you’re a court clerk, a judge, a prosecutor, an intake officer at probation, whatever, you’re inclined to say, ‘You don’t need to make this adversarial, you know, you’re admitting that you’re guilty, you’ve already told me that. Why do you need a lawyer here? And it’ll go easier on you if we just resolve it now.’”
That sort of sentiment harkens back to the very origins of the juvenile justice system in the late 1800s, with the first juvenile court statute adopted in Illinois in 1899.
Early reformers, as the Supreme Court noted in Gault, were shocked children could essentially be tried as adults and sentenced to long prison terms in which they were housed with adults who were hardened criminals.
“The idea of crime and punishment was to be abandoned. The child was to be ‘treated’ and ‘rehabilitated,’ and the procedures, from apprehension through institutionalization, were to be ‘clinical,’ rather than punitive,” the Supreme Court said in the Gault decision.
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Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about juvenile indigent defense, including:
The early reformers invoked the notion of “parens patriae” – a Latin phrase for a doctrine that grants the state the power and authority to protect people unable to legally act on their own behalf.
But ironically, however well-intentioned, the doctrine resulted in a juvenile justice system that denied children due process rights, including the right to counsel.
“The right of the state, as parens patriae, to deny to the child procedural rights available to his elders was elaborated by the assertion that a child, unlike an adult, has a right ‘not to liberty, but to custody,’" the Supreme Court said in Gault.
Thus, the court said, when the state intervened because a child was delinquent, “it does not deprive the child of any rights, because he has none. It merely provides the ‘custody’ to which the child is entitled.”
The court concluded the parens patriae doctrine “proved to be a great help to those who sought to rationalize the exclusion of juveniles from the constitutional scheme.”
Indeed, for most of the nation’s history, juvenile defendants were not guaranteed due process rights.
Today, juvenile defendants’ access to quality representation is eroded by the scant attention they sometimes receive from defense attorneys before the crucial detention hearing.
NJDC notes that the vast majority of juvenile court cases are resolved by plea agreements, often at an initial hearing that leaves kids feeling bewildered.
“In sites across the country,” NJDC says, “children have been observed entering plea agreements, only to leave the courtroom and ask, ‘What just happened?’”
That’s not the only part of the process that leaves juveniles baffled. Many don’t understand the Miranda warning, not to mention plea agreements that include complicated terms and probation provisions – actually part of a contract between the state and minors (who aren’t even allowed to enter into other legally binding contracts).
Before the initial hearing, overwhelmed public defenders juggling heavy caseloads often get just minutes to speak with juvenile defendants.
Deborah St. Jean, the director of the Juvenile Protection Division in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, knows the scene all too well.
In courtrooms throughout Maryland, St. Jean says, public defenders often get only 10 or 15 minutes for this meeting, and they have to cover a lot of ground in that time: What’s the defendant charged with? What are the circumstances of the alleged crime? Is the youth a flight risk or a danger to himself or others? If the defendant is released, will his parents let him stay with them? If not, where can he be placed? What is the child’s educational and family background?
And getting answers, of course, requires building a rapport with the defendants – no small task, when they’re typically feeling immense pressure, and often mistrust adults.
“Because kids are by nature very distrustful, particularly our clients, it takes more than 10 minutes to sort of convey to a kid, ‘Look, I’m here. I gotcha,’” St. Jean said. “It’s a very fast and a very sort of down-and-dirty endeavor. It’s a very stressful time for the kids because they want to go home and get out of jail so they’re interested predominantly in that."
“So, in order to get a clear picture of the child’s circumstances, the defender needs to get information. So it is unfortunate that these hearings are as hurried as they are. But the court always has this pressure to move things along, and that pressure falls squarely on the defender’s shoulders.”
In fact, one lawyer sometimes handles as many as 20 juvenile defendants in a single hearing in Maryland courtrooms and then enters into plea agreements for them, St. Jean said.
And the defenders are often working without necessary resources because of underfunding. NJDC points out many juvenile defenders – who include attorneys from public defender offices as well as contract attorneys appointed by courts – lack basics like computers, office file cabinets and access to online legal research, not to mention paralegals, investigators, social workers and experts deemed essential to effective representation.
The center also says that for “juvenile defenders across the country, meaningful training, supervision and mentoring opportunities are extremely limited” and “in many public defender offices, juvenile defenders are sent to juvenile court as if it were Siberia.”
This, despite the fact that juvenile defense is a specialty requiring a wide range of skills.
“Just because you can defend an adult doesn’t mean you can defend a juvenile,” St. Jean said. “To be an effective juvenile defender, to represent children, you have to be a jack of all trades. You have to understand adolescent development, neurology. You have to know about the brain sciences and the studies that show children aren’t just miniature adults.”
The Supreme Court has said as much in numerous rulings in which it has noted juveniles’ brains are not fully developed, and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and – notably – more amenable to rehabilitation. All these factors can weigh heavily in a juvenile case, and a good juvenile defense attorney knows when to raise them.
On top of expertise in juvenile law, juvenile defense requires knowledge of social services for children, the school system, the mental health system and out-of-home placement options, including group homes, foster care, residential programs and treatment facilities.
“You’ve got to be in court, you’ve got to talk to clients, you’ve got to prepare cases, but there’s a lot more sort of social work aspects that become involved when you’re working with kids – school, mental health, substance abuse treatment, home issues such as a parent and kid who don’t want to be in a home together, looking for alternative placements,” said Erin Josendale, an assistant public defender in Prince George’s County, Md.
Juvenile defenders are often looked down upon by others in the legal profession and even within public defender offices, suffering from a “kiddie-court mentality where stakeholders do not believe that juvenile court is important,” NJDC says.
“It’s often seen as a training ground or a dumping ground for attorneys because historically juvenile court has not and, in many cases, still is not viewed with respect within defender offices,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington and a former juvenile public defender.
Juvenile defenders are often paid less than other defense attorneys, with juvenile defense seen as a steppingstone to a better-paying position.
Nonetheless, many juvenile defenders choose juvenile defense as a career and are renowned for their passionate dedication to defending children against the power of the state.
And quality representation is essential to indigent children facing serious charges.
In the Gault decision, the Supreme Court said: “The child requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him."
But today, Casey’s Bart Lubow said, “We fall woefully short of that ideal. ... We are nowhere near where we need to be, certainly nowhere near where we need to be if the standard that’s going to apply is the ‘my-child’ test. And the my-child test would ask: What would you want and have for your kid if it was your kid facing the power of the state?”
[This story is part of a series focusing on false confessions and filming interrogations. Read other stories in the series here.]
More than a third of juveniles convicted of serious crimes said in a recent study they had falsely admitted to a crime they did not commit.
The study, which appeared in the journal “Law and Human Behavior,” focused on 193 males aged 14 to 17 incarcerated in a California juvenile justice facility.
Of the 35.2 percent who reported they had made a false admission, 17.1 percent said they made a false confession to police, while 18.1 percent said they pleaded guilty in court.
“We have an alarming number of youths who are at least claiming that they had made false admissions to crimes,” said the study’s lead researcher, Lindsay C. Malloy, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida International University.
The study, based on interviews with the teens, found 52 percent of those who said they made a false confession to police did so to protect someone else – for example, a relative or friend, often an adult who could face a stiffer penalty than the youths.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“They may expect harsh retaliation from friends, family members or fellow gang members for revealing the true perpetrator’s identity, for example.”[/module]"The consequences of falsely admitting guilt seem obvious to most, but there could also be consequences for these teenagers if they don’t take the blame for someone else,” Malloy said. “They may expect harsh retaliation from friends, family members or fellow gang members for revealing the true perpetrator’s identity, for example.”
The study noted that researchers had told the youths their responses were confidential and could not influence their future hearings or treatment by the judicial system.
A third of those who claimed they made a false confession cited duress resulting from police interrogation techniques, while 15 percent said they did so in order to receive a lesser sentence.
Just over half of those youths who claimed they had made a false guilty plea to a judge said they did so in order to receive a lesser sentence, while 32 percent said they did so to protect someone else and 14 percent cited duress resulting from pressure by lawyers. (The study did not distinguish between defense lawyers and prosecutors.)
More than 80 percent of the youths said police had used threats during interrogations, including the threat of physical force. One teen reported police had threatened to shoot him in the face. Another said police told him he would never see his family again if he did not confess, while a third said he was told police would arrange for his enemy to be his roommate if he did not confess.
Other responses on interrogation techniques:
- More than 80 percent of the teens claimed they had made a false confession after police used deception such as saying they had evidence they didn’t really have. By contrast, just over 40 percent said a lawyer had used deception. It’s legal for police to lie during interrogation, Malloy notes.
- One in five of the boys said police had used physical force such as hitting or kicking.
- Just over 70 percent said police had befriended them – for instance, by saying they were there to help the youths. Just under 70 percent of the juveniles reported lawyers had befriended them.
- Nearly 40 percent reported police had refused to allow them breaks. These breaks could be for using the bathrooms, resting, eating a snack or drinking water.
“These [interrogation] techniques work well with all people but with youths – who are even more vulnerable, who lack knowledge about how the legal system works and what their rights are, understanding what’s allowed and what isn’t – they really are at a different level of vulnerability,” Malloy said.
The teens interviewed reported that police interrogations lasted an average of about 3 hours and 20 minutes, with a range between 1 minute and 48 hours. Lawyer interrogations lasted an average of about 53 minutes, the youths said.
The study noted longer interrogations and refusals to give youths breaks increased the likelihood of false confessions, as reported by the youths.
Teens interviewed for the study said they had retracted 33 percent of false confessions and 26 percent of false guilty pleas.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“Current interrogation procedures ignore (and perhaps even exploit) the developmental vulnerabilities of young suspects."[/module]The study pointed to youths’ impulsivity, susceptibility to peer pressure, immature judgment and tendency to place short-term rewards (such as going home from a police station or jail) above longer-term implications of an action (like confessing to a crime).
“Current interrogation procedures ignore (and perhaps even exploit) the developmental vulnerabilities of young suspects, which stands in contrast to the legal system’s sensitivity to young victims and witnesses,” the study said.
Parents or lawyers were rarely present during questioning of the teens, the study pointed out, adding “it is particularly important that lawyers be present when young suspects are questioned.”[module type="aside" align="right"]
Learn more about juvenile indigent defense at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.[/module]
The findings come against a backdrop of research showing youths’ confessions often come during high-pressure interrogations when they are sometimes subjected to physical abuse, threats, intimidation and suggestions the criminal justice system will go easier on them if they confess.
“Our findings underscore the need for reform in policies regarding young suspects,” the study stated.
It urged law enforcement to “proceed especially carefully when questioning juvenile suspects” and warned against lengthy interrogations, depriving youths of counsel or other requests and questioning juveniles with a friend present (which can increase the likelihood of a false confession).
The study said surveys of law enforcement officials show they often recognize developmental differences between adolescents and adults but do not necessarily know how to apply that knowledge in the interrogation room.
The study also urged that entire interrogations of juveniles – not just confessions – be video-recorded. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now require some video-recording of interrogations.
“The existence of objective records of interrogation sessions may help deter, prevent and later detect the false admissions of juveniles, allowing fact finders the opportunity to make decisions based on direct observations of the interrogation techniques used, rather than potentially conflicting testimony about what occurred during the session,” the study said.
In contrast to the motivations for false admissions, the study found true admissions to crimes were most commonly “attributed to the desire to behave honestly.”
WASHINGTON – Consider some of the sobering statistics of gun violence in America:
Guns are the second-leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 19, and the leading cause of death among black children and teens.
Guns kill seven children and teens daily.
Since 1963, three times more children and teens have been killed by guns on American soil than U.S. soldiers killed in wars abroad.
Against this backdrop, clergy, children’s activists and others converged on the nation’s capital Sunday for a forum and service aimed at ending the epidemic of gun violence.
The Children’s Defense Fund and the Washington National Cathedral hosted the forum, held at the cathedral, and the CDF’s 22nd annual Children’s Sabbath. (Other Children’s Sabbath services were held Sunday at hundreds of houses of worship.)
“We are here today because I believe very deeply that the greatest threat to our national security and to our children’s present and future lies within us and not outside our borders,” said Marian Wright Edelman, CDF’s president and founder, who served as the forum’s moderator. “Our children are dying in our homes, on our streets, in our schools and communities from guns.
“And this is happening in all our communities in our country, in urban, suburban and rural areas, as we’ve just experienced in our so-called secure [Washington] Navy Yard, a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., a neighborhood park in Chicago and in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. This is an all-American epidemic. And all too often, our children are the casualties.”
As Edelman and forum participants spoke, blacksmiths in front of the cathedral – in keeping with the event’s theme, “beating swords into plowshares” – pounded pieces of confiscated guns provided by the Washington, D.C., police department into garden tools.
The dean of Washington National Cathedral, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, said “our national consciousness is regularly shaken by violent outbursts that we associate with specific dates and times such as Sandy Hook or the Navy Yard.”
But Hall said we must be mindful gun violence takes place every day across the country.
“There’s an emerging moral consensus that we must take specific action to curb gun violence in our streets, in our communities,” he said.
For their part, the three physicians who participated in the forum called on the nation to view gun violence from a public health perspective.
Dr. Mark L. Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Task Force on Global Health, a nonprofit, public health organization based in Atlanta, called for a scientific approach to reducing gun violence.
Rosenberg – a former assistant U.S. surgeon general and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control – noted that an epidemic of deaths on U.S. highways in the 1960s led to redesign of automobiles and roadways, significantly reducing the number of fatalities.
He said science also must be applied to reducing gun injuries and deaths to children – by scrutinizing them, their causes and ways to prevent them.
“This is not a hopeless morass, and we can find our way out of this, and science can help us get out of this and solve the problem,” Rosenberg said, adding: “We have to be on guard that we don’t let politics and individual self-interest derail our effort. This is too important to let it be stopped.”
Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. surgeon general who now serves as director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehose School of Medicine, noted that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general’s report on smoking and health.
Satcher urged Congress to take a public health approach to the epidemic of gun violence.
He recalled how Americans had expressed alarm over gun violence after the Columbine massacre of 1999 and last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“But unfortunately,” Satcher said, “the alarm has not lasted, and Congress has not acted, so I think the challenge we face today is how do we raise the alarm in this country about violence and guns, how do we save children’s lives and how do we educate each other? How do we protect our children [and] how do we create safe environments in which children can grow and develop?
“In order to be effective in solving public health problems, we need leaders who first care enough. We need leaders who know enough. We need leaders who have the courage to do enough. And we need to persevere until the job is done. And that’s certainly the situation with guns and violence.”
Dr. Tom McInerny, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, called for more federal research on preventing gun violence and stricter background checks for weapons purchases.
McInerny also said children should have greater access to mental health services. He said while more than 20 percent of children have mental health disorders, only about one in five of those with disorders receive mental health services.
McInerny said stronger gun laws would significantly reduce homicides, gun injuries and suicides and urged measures to reduce gun trafficking and reinstate the ban on assault weapons.
In an interview outside the cathedral, the CDF’s Edelman called gun violence and poverty – more than one in five American children lived in poverty last year – critical issues.
Standing nearby in the afternoon sunshine was Nardyne Jefferies, who came to the forum in memory of her 16-year-old daughter, Brishell Jones, who was killed in a Southeast Washington, D.C., drive-by shooting on March 30, 2010 that also killed two others and wounded six more.
Jefferies, an activist who opposes assault weapons – an AK-47 killed her daughter – said: “I advocated for my daughter in life and I want to continue to advocate for her. I never thought I’d live to see me bury my child, especially at such a young age.
“Children deserve to grow up and become adults, and adults deserve to grow into seniors. We deserve to live in a safe environment. So I’m just here to help in any way I can.”
As blacksmiths pounded parts of guns into garden tools, Jefferies said: “I think it’s beautiful. ... I’m really touched, very moved to see that something that caused so much devastation can be turned into something that can cultivate a garden, make some flowers bloom, just bring some beauty to a community.”
Nearby stood Gina McDade, an activist who came to the forum from Newtown, Conn., where five residents who live near her lost children in the Sandy Hook massacre.
“I never thought about gun violence at all until it hit home,” said McDade, who now serves as director of operations for The Newtown Foundation.
The foundation, which plans a Washington vigil in December on the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, said: “We’re just looking to reduce the escalating epidemic of gun violence basically though policy and cultural change. We’re realizing that this touches everybody.”
WASHINGTON – Nearly half of U.S. states have made great strides in the past eight years toward reducing the prosecution of juveniles in the adult criminal justice system or preventing youths from being placed in adult jails and prisons, a report released Thursday found.
The report, by the Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice -- a national advocacy group that seeks to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system –- reviewed reforms among states nationwide.
The report highlights reforms in 23 states that include limiting states’ authority to house young people in adult jails and prisons; raising the age for juvenile court jurisdiction to 18 so older teens are no longer automatically prosecuted as adults; revising laws so youths are more likely to stay in the juvenile justice system instead of being transferred to the adult system; and changing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Carmen Daugherty, policy director at CFYJ, pointed out that many of the reforms had been passed unanimously, reflecting the results of research on prosecuting juveniles in the adult criminal justice system or placing them in adult jails and prisons.
“We know that a lot of research and data have come out to show that past policies didn’t work to increase public safety or reduce juvenile crime,” Daugherty told JJIE.org.
“Policymakers are really taking into account the research, that data that is now available, in really realizing that the past practices of treating youths as adults did not work.”
The report notes many states enacted harsh laws in the 1980s and 1990s aimed at cracking down on youth crime by making it easier for young people to be prosecuted in adult criminal courts.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]The public remains largely unaware that 95 percent of juveniles tried in adult courts nationwide are non-violent offenders.[/module]Despite juvenile justice reforms, the report said, about 250,000 juveniles are tried in adult courts annually and nearly 100,000 youths are paced in adult jails and prisons each year. And half the states have undertaken no juvenile justice reforms, the report said.
Jessica Sandoval, CFYJ’s vice president and deputy director, said the public remains largely unaware that 95 percent of juveniles tried in adult courts nationwide are non-violent offenders.
“We don’t think the public is aware of it mostly because of the news that we see highlighting the most heinous crimes but not the kid who … gets in a schoolyard fight and gets charged as an adult,” Sandoval told JJIE.org.
Despite the lack of progress in many states, the CFYJ officials said they’re heartened by reforms that have taken place.
The officials point out research showing youths placed in the adult criminal justice system have a much higher rate of recidivism than those in the juvenile system and that youths are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention facility. And the U.S. Supreme Court has noted research showing young people’s brains are still developing and that they lack the maturity of adults.
Among the reforms highlighted in the report:
- Eleven states – Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Nevada, Hawaii, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Oregon and Ohio – have enacted laws limiting states’ authority to house youths in adult jails and prisons.
- Four states – Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi and Massachusetts – have increased the age for juvenile court jurisdiction. This means older teens are no longer automatically tried in adult criminal courts.
- Twelve states – Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Ohio, Maryland and Nevada – have revised laws on the transfer of youths to the adult criminal justice system, making it more likely young people will remain in the juvenile justice system.
- Eight states – California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Washington – have changed mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Among other things, the changes take into account the differences in brain development between youths and adults and allow for post-sentencing review for young people facing juvenile court sentences of life without parole.
“We are finding that states are moving away from prosecuting youths in the adult criminal justice system and from placing youths in adult jails and prisons,” Sandoval said. “We think that there’s work to do obviously. But we think this is a good direction we’re heading in.”
Tracy McClard lobbied hard for the reforms in Missouri. She did so in memory of her son, Jonathan McClard, who hanged himself in a Missouri prison in January 2008, three days after his 17th birthday -- and after a month of being held in solitary confinement for placing his hands in his lap, violating prison rules, during a visit from his mother.
Jonathan was 16 when he was tried as an adult, charged with first-degree assault with a deadly weapon in the shooting of a youth who was dating Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend -- and who he believed had threatened to harm her. The victim survived the shooting.
Juvenile justice officials who reviewed Jonathan’s case concluded he could be rehabilitated and recommended to a judge that he be placed in a juvenile facility offering education and rehabilitation programs under the state’s dual jurisdiction program. The program allows youths to receive a suspended adult sentence and be placed in a juvenile detention facility.
Among other things, “Jonathan’s Law,” named for the teen, requires judges to state in writing why they reject Division of Youth Services recommendations that a youth be placed in a juvenile facility under the dual jurisdiction program.
The law also raises the age that youths must be considered for dual jurisdiction from 17 to 17 years and six months. (In Missouri, 17-year-olds are tried as adults automatically.)
Jonathan’s mother founded Families and Friends Organized to Reform Juvenile Justice, which urged legislators to approve the law and continues to seek juvenile justice reform.
“The general public really does not know what we do to kids when they get arrested, and policymakers don’t know what we do to these kids,” McClard said.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]"The more we can expose these youths to the rehabilitative-type programs in the juvenile system, the better the outcomes are going to be for the youths and, as a result, for the community..."[/module]Michele Deitch, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said her research has shown many young people charged with crimes can be rehabilitated through education and treatment.
“So the more we can expose these youths to the rehabilitative-type programs in the juvenile system, the better the outcomes are going to be for the youths and, as a result, for the community,” Deitch told JJIE.org.
“It improves public safety. It reduces the number of victims. It reduces the chance that these kids are going to ultimately be repeat criminals or end up in the adult system and a burden to society in that way.”
Other research by Deitch helped persuade lawmakers to enact a 2011 law enabling those youths under 17 tried as adults to be held in a juvenile facility rather than an adult jail while awaiting trial.
“It’s a very poor fit to put children in adult facilities where they are at physical risk and their mental health is at risk and where the programs and services that are offered are just completely inappropriate for this age group,” Deitch said. “Jails are not equipped to provide children with education or treatment or services.”
She noted youths housed with adults are at high risk of being sexually or physically assaulted and if they’re placed in solitary confinement away from adults, it causes psychological harm and increases their risk of suicide.
Children as young as 13 are being held in solitary confinement up to 23 hours a day across the United States.
To draw attention to this treatment of detained juveniles, the American Civil Liberties Union has released a new video depicting the inside of a solitary confinement cell, along with a petition to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a ban on solitary confinement of juveniles in federal custody.
The video depicts a mostly bare 8-foot-long concrete cell with a concrete slab for a bed and a boy in an orange jumpsuit lying on it.
A narrator intones: “Can’t write home. Can’t visit, even with family. Trapped for weeks, months or even years with almost no human contact.
“Hypersensitivity, insomnia, anxiety attacks, self harm, suicide,” the narrator says, as the video shows the blade of a sharp object.
The ACLU joined with 40 advocacy groups in a campaign this year to pressure Holder to ban solitary confinement of youths in federal custody. The ACLU says doing so would set an important precedent for states to follow suit.
As JJIE.org has reported, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch released a report last year harshly criticizing solitary confinement of juveniles, saying it can cause irreparable psychological harm to youths at a time when their brains are not fully developed.
Solitary has been used in juvenile facilities and on minors sentenced to adult jails and prisons.
Justice came slowly for the “Englewood Four.”
Seventeen years after being convicted and imprisoned as teenagers for a rape and murder they did not commit, they were finally cleared by a judge.
During interrogations, all four had falsely confessed to the 1994 rape and murder of a 30-year-old prostitute in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
Last November, the Englewood Four – Michael Saunders, Harold Richardson, Terrill Swift and Vincent Thames – filed federal lawsuits claiming they were framed by police even though no physical evidence linked them to the crime and DNA evidence from the victim, which later matched that of a man who had killed two other prostitutes, had exonerated them.
The lawsuits alleged police used deceit, intimidation, threats, “prolonged isolation” and “outright physical coercion” to get confessions from the teens. According to the lawsuits, one teen’s chest was pounded with a phone book and a flashlight, and another teen was threatened with being shot behind the police station unless he confessed.
Today, false confessions by juveniles still occur with alarming frequency, experts say. The confessions typically come during high-pressure interrogations when the youths are sometimes subjected to physical abuse, threats, intimidation and suggestions the criminal justice system will go easier on them if they confess.
Juveniles are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of an interrogation, even when it’s conducted legally and without abuse, Joshua Tepfer, co-project director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University Law School, told JJIE.
“When you’re that age, can you ever imagine that words that you agree to say knowing they’re not true can put you away the rest of your life?” Tepfer said. “You’re told that that’s the only way you can get out of that situation. You say, ‘Fine, fine, I’ll sign this piece of paper and I’ll go on my merry way.’”
In the words of Douglas L. Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School: “Everyone has their breaking point when facing an experienced interrogator, and kids get there sooner than the average adult would.
“When a veteran police interrogator is interviewing a 15- or 16-year-old, the overwhelming advantage goes to the officer, and jurors find it very difficult to disbelieve the officer testifying under oath,” he said.
A new database of more than 1,100 exonerations over the past 25 years shows juveniles are much more likely than adults to confess to crimes they did not commit.
The National Registry of Exonerations, put together by the Northwestern University Law School and the University of Michigan Law School, showed 38 percent of youths who were convicted and later cleared had given false confessions, compared with 11 percent of adults.
Experts note juveniles’ brains aren’t fully developed and that teens tend to be impulsive and less mature than adults. Juveniles often don’t weigh long-term consequences of their actions and can be more easily intimidated than adults, and teens have typically been taught to respect authority figures like police officers.
Samuel R. Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Law School and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, pointed out there’s a high proportion of false confessions among juveniles and suspects with mental disabilities, for some of the same reasons.
“These are people who are easier to mislead [than adults], easier to manipulate, more trusting, more likely to be afraid, more likely to be confused, more likely to not understand what’s going on, and we see that repeatedly in the descriptions people give after the fact of why they falsely confess,” Gross told JJIE.
“People say things like, ‘After five hours [of interrogation], I’d tell them anything they wanted to hear. ... And, ‘I told them what they wanted so I could go home,’ is probably the single most common thing people say.”
There’s good reason for that belief, Gross says: Youths are often led to believe that if they simply confirm what police tell them they already know, they’ll be allowed to go home.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly weighed in on the interrogations of juvenile suspects.
In a 5-4 decision in 2011, the high court cited a previous decision that found interrogation can “induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed.”
“Recent studies,” the court said, “suggest that risk is all the more acute when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the U.S. Justice Department, cited the Supreme Court decision in a report last year on interrogating juvenile suspects.
“The juvenile interview and interrogation landscape is undergoing an unprecedented upheaval,” the report stated. “Over the past decade, numerous studies have demonstrated that juveniles are particularly likely to give false information – and even falsely confess – when questioned by law enforcement. Based on this research, court decisions are leading police to question juveniles differently than adults.
“Overall,” the report said, “law enforcement is not adequately trained in interviewing and interrogating juveniles.”
The report made a series of recommendations designed to prevent false confessions by juveniles. Among the recommendations: limiting interrogations to a maximum of four hours; allowing a “friendly adult” such as a parent or attorney to be present; recording interrogations; and avoiding the use of deception, promises of leniency, leading questions and threats.
Other experts have also recommended recording entire interrogations, not just confessions. Currently, 17 states and the District of Columbia have statutes requiring that interrogations involving serious crimes be recorded, and numerous police departments across the country require recording of most interrogations.
Thomas Sullivan, an attorney and proponent of recording interrogations, says among other things, the recordings can be used to determine whether defendants had been given appropriate explanation of Miranda rights, whether interrogators used proper procedures and tactics and whether a suspect’s statements were made freely and voluntarily. The recordings, Sullivan says, reduce the risk of false confessions and, in turn, civil suits and damage awards in favor of wrongly convicted people.
Jyoti Nanda, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles Law School, said the criminal justice system should go beyond recording interrogations of juveniles and require that all juveniles have a lawyer present at interrogations.
“Children shouldn’t have to invoke the right [to a lawyer],” Nanda told JJIE. “I think there should be a law that every child who has an interrogation has a lawyer present.”
Nanda, who runs a Los Angeles clinic to represent the civil needs of children in detention, said, “What’s so unfortunate is during these interrogations of children, that’s when [interrogators] tell them everything will be fine, but everything will not be fine.”