Vulnerable and Valued: Protecting Youth from the Perils of Custodial Interrogation

Kristin Henning 
Blume Professor of Law
Director - Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative
Georgetown Law

Rebba Omer 
Program Manager & Staff Attorney - Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative
Georgetown Law

Arizona must protect children from the trauma of coercive interrogations by ensuring all children are provided attorneys before they are interrogated. 

This article advocates for judicial and legislative reforms that will ensure all youth are protected from the harms of coercive police interrogation. Drawing upon the substantial body of research on adolescent development and the growing body of research on racial bias and the experiences of youth of color, this article finds that current Arizona law leaves youth vulnerable to wrongful convictions and trauma caused by coercive interrogation practices. Arizona courts must ensure that all youth confessions were knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Judges cannot be confident that a child’s confession was not the result of coercion or confusion without first thoroughly considering the impact of the child’s race and adolescence on all the circumstances surrounding the interrogation. While courts are an important last line of defense in preventing wrongful convictions against youth, attorneys should be the first. Arizona must protect children from the trauma of coercive interrogations by ensuring all children are provided attorneys before they are interrogated.

Key Findings:

  • Youth are uniquely vulnerable to the perils of custodial interrogation. Their brain development creates very real impediments to their ability to understand and assert their rights in custodial interrogation.

  • Youth of color, who directly and vicariously experience racially biased and aggressive policing, are doubly vulnerable to the inherently coercive nature of custodial interrogation.

  • Arizona youth need additional protections to prevent false confessions and the traumatic mental health impact of coercive interrogations.

Key Recommendations:

  • Arizona courts must thoroughly evaluate the impact of a child’s race and age on the way the child perceives and experiences all aspects of an interrogation. Judges should make this analysis explicit and put it in writing along with their ultimate findings on whether a child’s confession was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.

  • The Arizona State Legislature must enact policy that ensures every child has a meaningful opportunity to privately consult with a specially trained juvenile defense attorney before consenting to police interrogation.

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