LSU Law Faculty and Students Involved in Juvenile Confessions Reform

Following the state Subcommittee on Juvenile Confessions’ recent Juvenile Confessions Conference at the LSU Law Center, the consensus among the state and national panelists was that there needed to be reform in the laws governing the interrogations and confessions of juveniles. What exactly that reform might entail, however, was another matter.

Currently in Louisiana, the state uses a “totality of the circumstances” test to determine whether a confession was freely and voluntarily given and thus, properly admissible at trial.

The Subcommittee on Juvenile Confessions is discussing further steps for ensuring that confessions are reliable enough for adjudication. For instance, one procedure being looked at would employ electronic recordings of the interrogation, in addition to Miranda-style warnings. It was also suggested that a child must sign any statement in the presence of a magistrate with no law enforcement or prosecuting attorney present, and that interrogations of children should only be conducted by officers trained in why children give false confessions.

Furthermore, advocates from around the country proposed for consideration a wish list of other innovative procedural protections—a special “child-friendly” written (super) Miranda warning should be given, counsel must be present if a juvenile is confessing to certain serious offenses, the child must be at least 16 years of age to make any admissible confession, and a child should have an independent right to elect to have or not have a parent or guardian present during questioning.

With these measures in mind, Subcommittee Chair Stephen Dixon, an attorney with the Baton Rouge Public Defender’s Office and an adjunct professor of LSU Law, solicited advice from the group of national expert panelists on how to best accomplish their goals of reform.

Steve Drizin, a clinical professor at Northwestern University Law School, proposed that electronic recordings should be mandatory and should be videotaped rather than audiotaped. This would include video of children saying in their own words what they understand are their rights in regard to confessions. He also suggested that attorneys meet with children before police do, that police should be required to explain back Miranda warnings to children on tape so that the court has a record, and that there be legislation preventing a police officer from lying to a child about what evidence they may or may not possess.

Another aspect that should be considered, according to Robin Walker Sterling, special counsel for the National Juvenile Defender Center, is for special protections to be enacted for juveniles with mental health issues. She advocated the use of mental health professionals to come up with a process that would help children understand the proceedings. Margot Hammond, a member of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Confessions, took the idea a step further and suggested training attorneys as well in order for them to recognize such a situation and be part of addressing these special needs.

The panel also discussed issues such as extending the definition of custody to include school grounds and officers, and framing any new legislation so that it does not seem to protect the guilty, but rather promotes the reliability of all statements or confessions obtained by law enforcement.

Other members of the panel included Randy Hertz, Director of Clinical and Advocacy Programs and Professor of Clinical Law at New York University School of Law; Marsha Levick, Director of the Juvenile Center in Philadelphia; Joshua Perry, Special Litigation Counsel, New Orleans Public Defender’s Office; Patricia Puritz, Director, National Juvenile Defender Center; Clay Walker, Louisiana State Director of Juvenile Defender Services; Carol Kolinchak, Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and Subcommittee on Juvenile Confessions; Hon. Nancy Konrad, Subcommittee on Juvenile Confessions; LSU Law Professor Lucy McGough, Subcommittee on Juvenile Confessions; Hector Linares, LSU Juvenile Law Clinic Research Coordinator; and Cheryl Davis, LSU Law student researcher.