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Teenage brains don't understand Miranda warnings, say juvenile justice reformers

One of the courtrooms in the King County Children and Family Justice Center.
Paula Wissel
One of the courtrooms in the King County Children and Family Justice Center.

Just like adults, teens who are arrested are read their Miranda rights. But advocates for reform say the teenage brain isn’t developed enough to really absorb the meaning of “the right to remain silent” and “anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law.”

The Seattle City Council and King County Council are considering ordinances that would provide more protections for juveniles when it comes to the Miranda warning. 

Although the Miranda warning is something you’re used to hearing if you watch cop shows, Anita Khandelwal, the head of the Department of Public Defense for King County, says the research shows that most young people still don’t actually understand what it means.

“They don’t understand that they can remain silent. They don’t understand that they can ask for a lawyer. They don’t understand that they can refuse to consent to an officer’s request for a search or request for information,” Khandelwal told the Seattle City Council during a briefing.

She also said that young people are impulsive and are not good at thinking long term. They struggle to understand the consequences of a decision today and what it could mean for their lives in "three months or six months or five years." She also said studies show that teenagers are  “eager to please” when being questioned by police, and often fail to really evaluate what is in their interest.

Khandelwal supports efforts to require that people under the age of 18 be provided with an attorney before they are questioned by law enforcement, even if they’ve waived their Miranda rights. Both the Seattle City Council and the King County Council are considering ordinances that would do that. Council members are expected to vote on the measures later this month.

Seattle council members said the ordinance regarding Miranda seemed like something easy they could do in the interest of making the juvenile justice system more equitable.  Some other jurisdictions in the country already have done this, including San Francisco.

The laws are part of an ongoing effort to reform the juvenile justice system by usingteenage brain development research to fight for change.

The Miranda warning comes from a 1966 landmark Supreme Court decision Miranda v. Arizona. It ruled that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents prosecutors from using a person’s statements against them at trial unless it could be shown they’d been informed of their right to consult an attorney.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.