The videotape was shocking: A St. Clair County, Ill. sheriff’s detective repeatedly told 17-year-old Trevon Yates that he had proof the teen had committed an armed robbery. In response, the mentally impaired black teen from East St. Louis insisted he was innocent, cried for his mother and prayed out loud to God.
“I did not rob nobody,” Yates said at one point in the video. “I swear to God. I’m being honest with you, sir. I’m being so, so honest. I try to do right. I’m going to school to get my GED.”
After a two-hour interrogation without a lawyer present, Yates was charged and spent nine months in jail–until prosecutors saw the videotape and dropped the charges. Yates later was awarded $900,000 to settle a lawsuit against the sheriff’s department.
The Yates case is an extreme example of what juvenile justice experts say happens far too often: Under pressure by police, without a lawyer or parent present and lacking a clear understanding of their Miranda rights, children and teens can be easily led to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
“So many kids have confessed to things that are not true,” said state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, 5th District, who sponsored a recent bill meant to enhance the legal protections for children who are in police custody. “You can get a child to say anything.”
The Yates video, a “60 Minutes” story that reported on Chicago as the nation’s “False Confession Capital,” and the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” have raised public awareness and energy around the issue of false confessions and helped spur the push for the legislation, Van Pelt said. (Versions of the bill had previously languished in committees.)
Meanwhile, the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force noted the need to give youth a stronger shield from police abuse. In its widely publicized April report that was sharply critical of police practices overall, the task force wrote that “CPD has not made the legal rights of juveniles a priority. We have heard that police frequently tell lawyers working on behalf of juveniles that their clients do not have a right to counsel or that the juvenile’s guardian must approve a visit by a lawyer. Youth should be receiving more, not less, protection.”
The task force found that attorneys filled out visitor request forms in less than 1 percent of all Chicago arrests in 2015. For minors, the Chicago Defender later found, the numbers were even worse: Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of arrested juveniles had an attorney.
African American youth are far more likely to be arrested and so more at-risk of potential abuse: Three-fourths of the 14,600 arrests of juveniles in Chicago in 2015 were of black children and teens, according to data from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
“Doing the right thing” to protect minors’ rights
Experts point out that the bill, SB2370, is a modest step forward for protecting the rights of minors in police custody, though it still falls short of the protections provided in some other states and many western European countries. The bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The provisions would:
- Raise the age at which an attorney must be present during questioning in murder or sex offense cases from 13 to 15. Fewer than 100 cases fit this category each year, and most are in Cook County. Juvenile advocates initially wanted to raise the age to 17.
- Require police to read a simplified version of Miranda rights to all juveniles under the age of 18. After reading the statement, police are required to ask the minor: “Do you want to have a lawyer?” and “Do you want to talk to me?” (In the Yates case, a clinical psychologist stated that, given his low IQ, Yates could not have understood his Miranda rights.)
- Require police to videotape all interrogations of youth under the age of 18 in any felony case, as well as misdemeanor sex cases. No confession would be admissible in court unless it was videotaped.
Recording the entire interrogation is important to determine whether a child was coerced or pressured into giving a statement, said Benjamin Chambers of the Washington, D.C.-based National Juvenile Justice Network.
“There’s no question that having an attorney present is crucial to defending a kids’ rights, and that doesn’t happen enough. But the recording of the entire interrogation is a way to look back and judge whether the kid was pressured or not,” said Chambers. “It’s an affordable step forward, a sensible and practical way for law enforcement to, frankly, show that they’re doing the right thing.”
Elizabeth Clarke, president of the statewide Juvenile Justice Initiative, said the legislation is “a ridiculously modest bill that will ensure that very young children in incredibly serious circumstances have the protections they need. This helps to move us a little bit closer to really fulfilling the promise of Miranda 50 years later.”
Despite the national trend to provide more legal protections, the laws governing the rights of children in custody still vary widely from state to state. Several have no requirement at all for a lawyer’s presence or videotaping of interrogations, while other states go further than Illinois has thus far, according to data compiled by the Bluhm Legal Clinic on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.
Connecticut and Montana, for example, offer additional protections for minors under the age of 16. Connecticut requires a parent to be present during any police interrogation, and both child and parent must be informed of the child’s Miranda rights. In contrast, Illinois only requires police to make a reasonable attempt to get in contact with parents or legal guardians when their children are in custody.
Richard Hutt, chief of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, supports the bill but is also among those who say it doesn’t go far enough.
“I think we should be in the police station any time a kid is arrested,” Hutt said.
In more than two decades as a public defender for minors, Hutt said he has never seen a case in which a child exercised his or her right to call an attorney during an interrogation.
“Kids just don’t understand they don’t have to talk to a police officer,” he said. “When in a kid’s existence does he understand that [he] can say something and stop an adult, especially if the adult has a gun and a badge?”
Update Aug. 23, 2016: Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday signed SB2370, the bill that requires an attorney be present when police question anyone 15 or younger, as well as videotaped interrogations in certain serious cases. SB2370 was among a package of criminal justice reform legislation signed by the governor, including a bill to make it easier for juveniles to have their criminal records expunged.