Young people are more likely plead guilty when innocent compared to adults and need extra protections, according to a new study. Dr Rebecca Helm, a law lecturer at the University of Exeter, argues in a new article for the Journal of Law and Society that differences in children’s brains relating to their sensitivity to pressure and rewards, ‘make it more likely they will admit to crimes they didn’t commit when incentivized to do so’.
In 2019, more than six out of 10 child defendants in the Crown Court (61%) pleaded guilty with 58% pleading guilty at their first hearing; and almost half of child defendants in the youth court (47%) pleaded guilty at their first hearing. ‘The decision making of defendants is important to the legitimacy of convictions in the guilty plea era,’ argues Helm, who oversees the online Miscarriages of Justice Registry. ‘Child defendants, with their developmentally immature decision‐making systems, require specific tailored protections to avoid systematic wrongful conviction. Importantly, developmental vulnerability means that children are likely to be systematically pleading guilty to crimes that they did not commit in predictable circumstances.’
Inevitably, such ‘rewards’ create pressure for any defendant to plea guilty when they are in fact innocent – particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to defendants being held on remand for well beyond the legal time limit (here). The study argues that these ‘rewards’ are not appropriate for children, and that reductions should be based on less prescriptive guidelines and individual case circumstances, such as the defendant’s age.
According to dr Helm, the criminal justice system ‘relies almost exclusively on the autonomy of defendants, rather than accuracy, when justifying convictions via guilty plea’. ‘But children don’t necessarily have the capacity to make truly autonomous decisions in this context, where they face a variety of really compelling pressures,’ she continues. Children were ‘likely to misunderstand information, not admit they don’t understand and agree with statements, or succumb to pressure from others and the system’, she continues. ‘The incentives offered to encourage guilty pleas, and time pressures associated with them, are likely to interact with developmental vulnerabilities in children to create an environment in which innocent children are systematically pleading guilty.’