Kids Need Miranda Rights They Can Understand
Most Americans recognize the Miranda warning from its starring role in the denouement of practically every cop show on TV. In real life, however, there is no such thing as the Miranda warning. Different agencies and jurisdictions have different ways of telling suspects they have the right to remain silent and to an attorney, and that anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law.
One study found almost 900 variations of the warning, ranging in length from 21 to 408 words and with different degrees of complexity. Many adults have difficulty comprehending and retaining the warning -- and for young people, the problem is far worse.
Only about one in 10 juvenile suspects typically exercises Miranda rights. Research has shown that juveniles are especially susceptible to making false confessions. Despite that, no state guarantees a lawyer to every child during interrogation. Only one state, Illinois, requires it even under specific circumstances. Indeed, most states permit children to waive the right to a lawyer without first consulting with a lawyer.
Several states require police to make “reasonable” or “good faith” efforts to contact parents when children face questioning. But even the most conscientious parents are no substitute for a trained lawyer. Moreover, parents can have competing interests: Imagine a crime for which both parent and child are plausible suspects.
In effect, in most cases the criminal justice system approaches juvenile suspects with confusing language to advise them of their rights, then proceeds to interrogate them without the benefit of counsel. It’s a recipe for injustice.
In September, authorities in King County, Washington, adopted a simplified Miranda warning for juveniles. The language is conversational and straightforward (“It’s OK if you don’t want to talk to me”). Perhaps most important, the warning makes juveniles aware that they have “the right to talk to a free lawyer right now,” then explains what that means.
It’s been more than half a century since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miranda decision affirming a suspect's right to counsel and a separate ruling affirming a right to counsel in juvenile court. It’s long past time for U.S. law enforcement agencies to adopt simpler language, and clearer procedures, to enable juveniles to exercise those rights.
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