Experts are calling for major changes to the juvenile justice system after finding that teenagers are far more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit compared to adults.
New study findings suggest that teens should not be allowed to make deals where they face a lesser charge in return for pleading guilty, because they are less capable of making mature decisions and more likely to be enticed by such an offer — even when they have done nothing wrong.
This is consistent with previous research showing that adolescents are less able to perceive risk and resist the influence of peers because of developmental immaturity.
“It is important to ensure the people accused of crimes have the capacity and freedom to make sensible decisions about whether to plead guilty,” said researcher Dr. Rebecca Helm from the University of Exeter Law School in the U.K..
“Where systems allow defendants to receive a reduced sentence or charge by pleading guilty they need to ensure that defendants are suitably developed to make such decisions and that they have the necessary levels of understanding, reasoning, and appreciation.”
In fact, in both the U.S. and U.K., most criminal convictions occur as the result of guilty pleas, rather than trial. This means that most convictions are the result of decisions made by people accused of crimes rather than jurors.
The study was conducted in the U.S., where a system known as “plea bargaining” is used, but the researchers say their discovery has implications for countries across the world that allow young people accused of crimes to receive a sentence or charge reduction by pleading guilty.
The researchers recommend restricting reductions that may essentially bribe innocent teenagers into pleading guilty. It should also be easier for teens to change pleas after they have been entered.
“We hope this research will lead to plea systems becoming fairer and less coercive for adolescents,” said Helm. “Any restrictions on guilty pleas for adolescents would have to be introduced in a way that avoids harsher average sentences being imposed on adolescents.”
“However, research increasingly suggests that in the same way as they are too young to vote, too young to drink alcohol, and too young to rent a home, perhaps adolescents are too young to plead guilty.”
For the study, Helm and Valerie F. Reyna, Allison A. Franz, and Rachel Z. Novick from Cornell University tested decision-making among people of different ages. They recruited 149 adolescents aged nine to 17 from high schools and middle schools in New York, 200 students from Cornell University aged 18 to 22, and 187 adults from across America.
All participants were given the same hypothetical situation in which they were asked to indicate the decisions they would make if accused of a crime. They were either asked to imagine they were guilty or not guilty of the crime, and were told the approximate likelihood of conviction at trial and the reductions that could be gained by pleading guilty as opposed to being convicted at trial.
The findings show that as people become older, those who are innocent are less likely to plead guilty. For example, innocent teens said they would plead guilty in roughly one-third of cases, while innocent adults indicated that they would plead guilty in just 18 percent of cases.
Importantly, the teens were significantly less influenced in their decision-making by whether or not they were guilty compared to adults. The results also suggest that adolescents are making decisions that do not reflect their values and preferences, including those relating to admitting guilt when innocent, due to developmental immaturity.
Although this was an experiment, the researchers believe the findings have important implications for the juvenile justice system.
Source: University of Exeter