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What does a guilty plea actually mean to a teenager?

What does a guilty plea actually mean to a teenager?

Most people in Eagan recognize that a sexual assault charge is incredibly serious and a conviction would come with a long prison sentence and potentially a lifetime on the Minnesota Sex Offender Registry. With this in mind, it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would enter a guilty plea on a charge of rape unless he or she actually raped someone. Yet 38 percent of juveniles who are convicted and later exonerated were found to enter false confessions. So when a teenager pleads guilty to any crime, what does he or she actually mean?

Certainly, some teenagers plead guilty to crimes because they committed them and would like to confess, but it seems many others enter false confessions for a variety of reasons.

Teens are much more likely than adults to defer to figures of authority, which means teens may be telling police officers what they believe officers want to hear. It is frightening for anyone to be interrogated as a suspect, but for teenagers, they may be ready to confess to things they did not do because they believe it will provide some short-term relief. Maybe the interrogation will stop, maybe the teen will be able to go home; regardless, the long-term consequences of a guilty plea will haunt teens for a long time to come.

Take the example of a Florida man who spent nearly 26 years in prison after he pled guilty to a rape and murder he was accused of committing when he was 15 years old. Whether it was his age, his IQ of 67 or a combination of the two, he pled guilty to a crime that he didn’t commit. It took DNA evidence and almost 26 years to clear his name.

Source: Wall Street Journal, “False Confessions Dog Teens,” Zusha Elinson, Sept. 8. 2013

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