Investigating the Alarming Prevalence of False Confessions

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Nobody thinks they would ever give a false confession to a crime they didn’t commit, yet thousands of people have done it over the years – and often for very serious crimes. What gives?

Understanding False Confessions

According to research conducted by the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that fights for the rights of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, an astonishing 1 out of 4 people wrongfully sentenced but later exonerated by DNA evidence made false confessions or incriminating statements.

In others words, 25 percent of those who are eventually cleared by DNA evidence have succumbed to making false statements. And if you look at the most serious crimes, the statistics are just as alarming. According to research from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), false confessions contributed to 17.6 percent of death-row exonerations between 2007 and 2017.

It’s easy to see a story on the news and assume that false confessions are a criminal charge that is few and far between, but the statistics support the notion that it’s much more commonplace than anyone would like to believe. This idea is largely fueled by the notion that most people can’t imagine any scenario in which they would falsely confess to something they didn’t do.

The answer to why innocent people confess to crimes isn’t as easy as pointing to a single causal factor. In most cases, it’s a result of the individual believing that complying with the police and telling them what they want to hear will be more advantageous than maintaining innocence. In fact, many believe that they can simply correct the false confession with zero consequences as soon as they walk out of the room.

Common factors that contribute to false confessions during formal police interrogations include: duress, coercion, intoxication, diminished capacity or mental impairment, misunderstanding of the law, fear of violence, actual violence, threats of harsh sentences, and an overall misunderstanding of the situation. Children and the mentally disabled are most susceptible to false confessions.

Preventing False Confessions 

One innocent person serving time in prison for something they didn’t do is one too many – so there’s clearly a problem. But how can false confessions be prevented? While not perfect, the following strategies may help: 

  1. Mandatory Recording of All Interrogations

“The electronic recording of interrogations, from beginning to end, is the single best reform available to prevent wrongful convictions caused by false confessions,” Innocence Project explains. “This record will improve the credibility and reliability of authentic confessions, while protecting the rights of innocent suspects.”

To date, 24 states across the nation have implemented mandatory laws for the recording of all custodial interrogations. More than 1,000 other law enforcement agencies voluntarily record all interrogations. In these districts, good law enforcement practices seem to be more commonplace.

  1. Rules Against Lying to Suspects

One of the more questionable tactics law enforcement uses when interrogating suspects is lying. They’ll say they have evidence placing the individual at the scene of the crime, even when they don’t. And after hours of repeating these lies – sometimes for six, eight, or 12-plus hours – the suspect eventually begins to believe it’s the truth.

By establishing rules against lying – as well as time limits on how long suspects can be interviewed – it’s possible that suspects wouldn’t be so psychologically manipulated.

  1. More Accountability From Judges

It’s clear that there needs to be more accountability in the judicial system. And since this accountability is unlikely to come from prosecutors themselves, who are always seeking convictions, it’s up to third-party sources to look out for the best interests of the accused.

The most obvious solution is to better educate judges on the realities of false confessions. By helping them spot signs, symptoms, and common scenarios in which false confessions are given, they may be able to better prevent these confessions from being heard in the courtroom. 

  1. On Call Public Defenders

While suspects are required to be read their Miranda rights prior to being interrogated by law enforcement, very few people actually ask to speak with an attorney. According to an examination by the Police Accountability Task Force of arrests in Chicago between 2014 and 2015, less than one percent of all arrestees had the help of a lawyer at any point during interrogation.

One reason for this is that public defenders usually maintain 9-5 hours, Monday through Friday. When interrogations happen during off hours, it’s often hard to get a hold of an attorney.

“Having a public defender on call 24/7 is certainly a cost to the public, but so is the cost of paying police, sheriffs, county jail staff, and county detention staff 24/7,” Elizabeth Clarke writes for The Crime Report. “So if we agree to pay the cost of all these law enforcement staff 24/7, then why can’t we have also pay for a lawyer to be on call 24/7?”

Justice System Reform

While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever reach a world in which zero innocent people go to prison for crimes they didn’t commit, justice system reform can certainly help prevent false confessions. It’s a serious problem with serious consequences and must be dealt with sooner rather than later.

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