The American criminal justice system prides itself on being built on the principles of fairness and innocence until proven guilty. However, further examination of the system in recent years has shown us that true justice is not achieved in many cases. One of the most urgent examples of injustice is wrongful convictions. 

The population most affected by wrongful convictions are juvenile defendants.

According to data from the National Registry of Exonerations, 36% of the 211 exonerees who were wrongly convicted as children falsely confessed to a crime, while only 10% of the 2,189 exonerees who were wrongly convicted as adults falsely confessed. Other similar studies have corroborated that juvenile defendants are more likely than adults to provide false confessions to law enforcement officers. The Prison Policy Initiative found that out of 340 exonerations, 42% of juveniles falsely confessed, while only 13% of adults falsely confessed.  

One reason that adolescents are more likely to falsely confess is because neurological research shows that the human brain does not fully develop until the age of 25. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice found that the prefrontal cortex, which governs an individual’s executive functions of reasoning, advanced thought, and impulse control, is the last area of the brain to develop. 

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, since adolescents’ prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, they use the amygdala, which is the more emotional and reactive part of the brain, to make their decisions. This type of reactive decision making makes adolescents especially prone to wrongfully confessing or being subject to manipulation by law enforcement.   

Despite this data, under current Connecticut state law, a parent or guardian does not have to be present when an accused 16 or 17-year-old gives a statement to law enforcement. However, Connecticut raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 over ten years ago, which means that no child under 18 could automatically be transferred to adult courts. For the issue of juvenile statements, Connecticut views a 16-year-old as an adult even though other minor decisions, such as going on a school trip, still need parent permission until age 18.

It is clear that our state already recognizes 18 to be the age when individuals start to make their own decisions as adults. That same age should therefore be respected in regards to juvenile statements. 

Having a parent present when a juvenile defendant is giving a statement is essential because a parent or guardian can intervene if their children feel pressured to say something that is untrue. Adolescents are often scared of law enforcement officials and are more easily coerced, especially under stress, and having a trusted adult present would most certainly allow them to make more level-headed decisions and statements under pressure. 

In the Connecticut General Assembly, Senate Bill 392, An Act Concerning Juvenile Statements, would raise the age under which juvenile defendants need the presence of their parent or guardian to make a statement admissible in court from 16 to 18. This is a valuable opportunity for Connecticut to protect the most vulnerable members of our community, reducing instances of false confessions and of manipulation of juveniles by police. Unfortunately, this bill has yet to be voted out of the Judiciary Committee.

While this bill may not pass this legislative session, it is nevertheless crucial to bring juvenile justice to the forefront of our policy priorities. Juvenile justice reform is such an important issue because our children are the future of our society. Juvenile defendants are not adults, and therefore should never be treated as such. We cannot expect adolescents to understand the nuanced language of the law and to make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives without their parents or guardians present. 

Senate Bill 392 should not be a difficult bill to pass. The language of the law remains the exact same with the exception of one word: changing 16 to 18. The change might be small, but the impact it will have for countless juvenile defendants in our state is immense. The American criminal justice system requires a wide range of reforms, but starting with juvenile justice will ensure that the future is brighter than the past.  

Tione Hoeckner is a member of the Yale Democrats.