Excerpted From: Sydney Baker, Kamar Y. Tazi and Emily Haney-Caron, A Critical Discussion of Youth Miranda Waivers, Racial Inequity, and Proposed Policy Reforms, 29 Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. 320 (August, 2023) (3 Footnotes/References) (Full Document)


BakeTaziHanyCaron.jpegDecades of research has clearly established that youth are at particular risk in the criminal legal system. At the earliest formal contact with the justice system, youth who become custodial suspects must be informed of their rights to silence and counsel in what have now become referred to as Miranda warnings. Despite substantial psycho-legal research on Miranda waivers--the decision to waive the rights to silence and/or counsel--virtually no empirical works have approached youth Miranda waivers from an equity perspective. To address this, the current paper traces the history of Miranda as it relates to youth, describes salient problems with youth Miranda advisements and waivers informed by several areas of research (i.e., adolescent development, racial biases, and interrogation tactics), critically reviews proposed policy solutions as a contribution to Miranda theory and practices, and suggests important areas for future research. This review is not conceptualized as an exhaustive account of youth Miranda research. Instead, it is intended as an interdisciplinary review of salient research findings and a novel discussion of policy changes--including potential contributions and limitations--aimed at addressing the problems associated with youth Miranda practices. Forensic practitioners, legal scholars and actors, and those with the power to inform policy are strongly urged to consider this a call to action on behalf of our most vulnerable youth.

Need for a Developmentally and Racially Informed Analysis

One might ask: Just how vulnerable are youth who enter the justice system? The case of Kirk Otis (Otis v. State, 2005) provides a disheartening but important response. Kirk Otis was just 14 years old when he was charged with capital murder. He waived his Miranda rights and agreed to talk to police. However, during stages of the initial trial and subsequent appeal, Kirk's history of hardships (i.e., mitigating factors) became clear and raised questions about whether his decision to waive his Miranda rights was valid. Kirk had endured long-standing physical abuse from his father, had a history of mental health difficulties including psychiatric inpatient services and psychiatric medications, and had been diagnosed with borderline intellectual functioning with an IQ of 68 or 69 and functioning consistent with 9- through 12-year-olds. Kirk was described by those close to him and those who worked with him (e.g., teachers, psychiatrists) as someone who struggled with developmentally appropriate maturity, likely related to his cognitive functioning, and he had difficulties with judgment and decision-making. 'Kirk was convicted in adult court and sentenced to serve 10 years in prison, despite limited evidence of guilt (e.g., there was no physical evidence implicating him, and Kirk claimed another person committed the murder). During interrogation, Kirk provided four tape-recorded statements in which he denied involvement in the crime, but then after being subjected to a polygraph examination, he confessed. One day after his confession, he recanted, again asserting that he did not commit the murder. For Kirk, the damage was done. On appeal, Kirk's defense attorney argued that he did not voluntarily waive his Miranda rights prior to his singular confession, but the Arkansas Supreme Court disagreed, and his 10-year sentence was affirmed. The constellation of factors relevant to Kirk's life (e.g., borderline intellectual functioning, developmental immaturity) clearly suggests that Kirk would have had considerable difficulties navigating interrogation and making informed decisions about whether to talk to police. Kirk was not able to act in own best interest--much like most youth.

Even more egregious--but not at all uncommon--at least two police officers reportedly made derogatory racial remarks toward Kirk during his interrogation. Given what is known about the negative impact of racial discrimination and stereotype threat on cognitive ability and socioemotional functioning, which impact decision-making, Kirk's ability to make a valid Miranda waiver was likely further compromised by this experience of racism during interrogation. Furthermore, legal socialization likely taught Kirk that he was facing physical danger if he did not obey the officers, and so he may have felt incredible pressure to comply with their wishes. It is not difficult to imagine Kirk as an overwhelmed and scared boy who struggled to navigate a stressful and hostile situation.

Sadly, Kirk's case is not unique. Over 90% of youth waive their Miranda rights, which can have dire consequences, especially given that police officers primarily aim to elicit incriminating statements or confessions in subsequent interrogations. Kirk's case sends a strong message: Youth need and deserve protections during the Miranda process. Adolescent development--and the ways in which developmental immaturity is compounded by systemic racism--must be highlighted when designing policies to reform interrogation practices. However, adequate protection of youth, especially youth of color, during interrogation is not yet the reality.

This paper is informed by the perspective that youth waiving their rights without the presence of an attorney is always harmful. Due to a wealth of factors discussed in detail in subsequent sections, adolescents are not equipped to make complex legal decisions--especially those that relinquish their rights--without guidance. Although there may be an incredible minority of cases in which youth can act in their own best interest in the absence of counsel, we believe that, at the very least, advice and guidance from an attorney are crucial during youth interrogation. It is important to note that some of the concerns related to youth Miranda practices also extend to emerging adults. Although we focus this paper on adolescents due to the additional vulnerabilities they face during interrogation simply due to their young age, other researchers are strongly encouraged to advance research and scholarship on emerging and young adults.

Additionally, literature regarding persons of color and Miranda practices is limited. Of the work that does exist, most has focused on Black or Latine Americans, but overwhelmingly more on the former. For non-Black youth of color, virtually no theories or research exist about how race and racial bias may impact the Miranda process. Importantly, we acknowledge the focus on Black Americans as crucial given systemic bias against Black Americans in the legal system (e.g., Nellis, 2016) and acknowledge the relative dearth of information regarding other groups as problematic. Despite this limitation, racially and ethnically based injustices likely impact all persons of color (Black and non-Black). Researchers are strongly encouraged to advance this body of literature with an increased focus on racially and ethnically diverse samples.

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Miranda decisions (i.e., to waive or assert rights) represent a considerable decision point in an adolescent's trajectory in the criminal legal system. Following a waiver, youth are vulnerable during interrogations and these outcomes are likely worse for youth of color. Black youth specifically face cumulative disadvantages at each step of legal processing, such as plea bargaining and disposition/sentencing . Juvenile court adjudications and criminal court convictions carry a wide range of collateral consequences that affectmental and physical health, education and employment opportunities, and the likelihood of subsequent juvenile and adult legal system involvement. Incarceration, in particular, has deleterious impacts on health, which disparately impact youth of color because adjudicated/convicted youth of color are more likely to be placed in residential facilities than White youth. Incarcerated youth tend to exhibit high rates of mental health concerns including suicidality, neurodevelopmental disorders, and alcohol and substance use, as well as an increased exposure to diseases. Over time, these difficulties contribute to greater recidivism, mortality, and overall health problems . Furthermore, individuals incarcerated during adolescence face various barriers when attempting to reenter society that impact their ability to obtain housing such as disruption in social networks, reduced earnings, and restrictions on eligibility to receive public housing . Consequently, youth incarceration increases the likelihood of homelessness . If youth are unable to effectively assert their Miranda rights, they are at greater risk for each and all of these negative outcomes.

Due to developmental immaturity that limits decision-making capacities, adolescents are at increased risk of making unknowing, unintelligent, and involuntary Miranda waivers. Indeed, a body of research has demonstrated that youth struggle to understand the meaning of Miranda warnings and appreciate the long-term implications of waiving their rights . Interrogation techniques take advantage of the developmental aspects of adolescence that put youth at risk of making invalid waivers. This is especially the case for youth of color, as racism and bias held by legal actors increase their vulnerability in interrogation. Given the consequences of uninformed Miranda waivers for youth, research exploring the utility of possible solutions, such as the avenues for future research and the five outlined policy reforms, is critical.

There have been numerous calls to reform youth Miranda policies to encourage more consistency with best-practice recommendations and extant knowledge about adolescent development. Unfortunately, many of these proposed reforms fall short. Requiring that interrogations be videotaped, requiring parent presence during interrogation, simplifying Miranda rights, and prohibiting youth statements from being used in court likely to do not enough to protect youth, and may still lead to negative consequences. Other proposed reforms may be promising, but research has yet to examine them in depth. Fully protecting youth will require new solutions not yet proposed.

It is our hope that this and similar calls to action prompt continued research and resource devotion to reform efforts for youth. Such efforts could significantly reduce outcomes like that of Kirk Otis, the 14-year-old Black boy sentenced to 10 years all the while struggling with mental health, impaired cognitive functioning, and longstanding abuse. Kirk's case is by no means an anomaly, but perhaps 1 day it could be.

Sydney Baker (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7829-696X
Kamar Y. Tazi (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1464-6027
Emily Haney-Caron (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2564-9810</p>

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sydney Baker, Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York, 524 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019, United States. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.