For nearly 60 years, U.S. law enforcement authorities have been required to advise suspects of their right not to self-incriminate. The Miranda Warning, including the phrase “you have the right to remain silent,” has become so ingrained in the culture that it’s a routine plot point on most TV crime dramas. But what happens when someone in police custody doesn’t really comprehend Miranda rights that cover not just a right to stay silent but a right to counsel? Such is often the case with juvenile defendants. They may hear a police officer reading from some card about rights, but when the lecture concludes with that adult expecting him or her to still talk (and likely pressuring them to do so), it’s unlikely that the youngster — at least one who hasn’t aced a class in constitutional law — is making an informed consent.
Legislation pending before the Maryland General Assembly would address this inequity by prohibiting police from conducting an in-custody interrogation of a child until that person had consulted with an attorney and a reasonable effort been made to notify parents. There’s no question that the measure, the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act (House Bill 269 and Senate Bill 53), places an added burden on police and prosecutors. It’s surely easier to coerce a confession from a child without the burden of making sure they understand their rights. But experts have found the current system makes it easier for the innocent to be convicted of crimes they did not commit. And it’s telling that other democracies around the globe don’t give law enforcement such a free hand with kids.
The House version of the bill is likely to pass. Similar legislation was approved by the chamber last year. The tougher hurdle is in the state Senate where the bill sponsored by Baltimore state Sen. Jill Carter failed to make it out of committee in 2021, and, given that this is an election year, it will likely be facing resistance again. Why? Chiefly because senators in potential swing districts are fearful that they will be portrayed as “soft on criminals” by Republican opponents at a time of heightened public fears over crime, particularly in Baltimore, which remains beset by homicides. And while most of those killings are perpetrated by adults, there surely is no shortage of juvenile incidents, such as the 16-year-old city resident recently arrested in connection with the murder and attempted robbery of a 51-year-old Door Dash driver who had run out of gas.
No one wants lawbreakers to go free or criminal violence to go unpunished. But does the burden of fully understanding one’s rights harm this goal or actually help the cause of justice? According to the American Bar Association, juveniles waive their Miranda rights far more often than adults do — 90% of the time. Research suggests this is simply because they don’t understand what they are giving up. Conversely, research has shown that juveniles are far more likely to provide false confessions. A stunning 86% of offenders age 14 or younger who were eventually exonerated of the crimes provided false confessions to authorities, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. And it should be noted that these youngsters who have waived their rights and/or been wrong convicted are more likely to be Black or Hispanic than white, which only exacerbates racial disparities in the legal system and in society.
Other states have been updating their juvenile justice procedures in a similar manner and it’s time for Maryland to join that cause or fall further behind in due process rights. Meanwhile, lawmakers would be wise to also approve a related reform ending the practice of automatically prosecuting juvenile offenders as adults for certain crimes. More than half of states have made that change, according to The Sentencing Project. Young people aren’t just smaller versions of grownups. Their brains are still developing and putting them back on the straight and narrow — providing interventions that will steer them away from a life of crime and toward responsible behavior — is a far more achievable outcome than it would be for adults. That’s not just good for them, it’s a much better circumstance for everyone else in the community as well. Let’s at least put a squeeze on the school-to-prison pipeline.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.