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As with adult pleas, a majority of justice involved juveniles choose to plead guilty rather than risk a trial (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013). However, little is known about the legal procedure juveniles go through when they are offered a deal. Recently, Zottoli and colleagues conducted a systematic review of the laws and policies pertaining to plea bargaining in adult court (Zottoli et al., 2019). Although their review both answered and generated questions regarding the standardization of plea legal procedure, the question of what the law requires for juvenile plea bargaining still remains. 

In collaboration with the Youth Justice Lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the current study will survey the statues, regulations, and court rules pertaining to juvenile plea bargaining. The study aims to explore how different states across the US regulate and structure juvenile plea bargaining.
The findings of this study will contribute to the plea literature by expanding on reviews already done on adult plea-bargaining laws and policies. The results will also aid researchers in conducting future research on juvenile plea bargaining by providing an overview of the multijurisdictional guidelines for this practice.

Judge and Gavel


Before police interrogation, suspects must be informed of their Miranda rights—rights to silence and to representation by legal counsel during interrogation (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966). Suspects must knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive these rights for interrogation to occur, and for the resulting confession to be admissible in court. When evaluating the validity of a Miranda rights waiver, courts apply a “totality of the circumstances” approach, which requires the judge to consider all factors that may have influenced the knowing, intelligent, or voluntary nature of the waiver (Fare v. Michael C., 1979). Because the totality of the circumstances test allows for a great deal of judicial discretion, it is likely that judges differentially consider the factors that make adolescents particularly vulnerable to invalid waivers. 


The current study will systematically identify the factors judges consider as part of the totality of the circumstances when reviewing the validity of youth Miranda waivers and subsequent admissibility of youth confessions. This archival-based study will review recorded appellate case law from 1979 to present and examine the frequency with which various totality of circumstances factors are considered and describe patterns across jurisdictions and over time.

Image by Bill Oxford


The Miranda rights are intended to inform suspects of their constitutional protections during interrogation contexts. However, research has found that a high percentage of juveniles waive their rights without understanding of the meaning and importance of their rights (Goldstein, Haney-Caron, Levick, & Whiteman, 2018). A number of jurisdictions have begun to require the presence of an “interested adult” to assist juveniles during this process (Goldstein et al., 2018). However, parents may also hold many fundamental misconceptions about the application of these rights and the realities of police interrogation procedures, and so their presence may not be a source of protection (Viljoen et al., 2005; Woolard et al., 2008).

The current study will collect data on (a) what approaches “interested” parents report they would take in advising their children or in their dealings with the police, and (b) to determine whether the approach taken (i.e., recommending cooperating with the police, waiving Miranda rights, confessing to a crime) differs as a function of the severity of the offense allegedly committed. The findings of this study will contribute to a greater understanding of how adults behave in such a role and whether their presence protects or harms the legal interests of the child, which has substantial policy implications for juvenile interrogation practices.

 Scales of Justice


In the juvenile justice system, over 90% of youth take a plea deal, admitting guilt in exchange for reduced charges or a lighter punishment (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013; Redlich, 2010). Despite the large scope and sobering consequences of guilty pleas, research on juvenile guilty pleas is still very limited and has not examined the perspectives of juvenile judges, who are ultimately responsible for ensuring youth plead guilty only with an adequate understanding of the consequences of that decision (e.g., Redlich & Shteynberg, 2016).

The current study is exploratory in nature and seeks to examine juvenile judges’ understandings of the plea bargain process and the procedures they use in their courtroom in entering juveniles’ guilty pleas. Active United States judges who have presided over juvenile or family court will be surveyed about judicial practices and perceptions of the juvenile plea bargaining process. Findings from this study will establish initial data on the factors that judges consider in evaluating the validity of a youth’s plea, allow us to identify aspects of juvenile plea colloquies ripe for future investigation, and contribute to a public policy agenda focused on safeguarding youth from uninformed or involuntary pleas.


Contract Review

Policy work in the Youth Law & Psychology Lab focuses on advocating for approaches to juvenile justice policy that reflect the research literature on juvenile justice, adolescent development, and racial equity. We develop resources for justice system stakeholders to learn about and utilize evidence-based approaches to juvenile and criminal justice. The Youth Law & Psychology Lab has provided training on adolescent development for public defenders who work with youth clients, prosecutors, judges, and social workers who work with justice-involved youth. Trainings focus on adolescent developmental maturity and its relationship to various aspects of youth legal involvement, including interrogation and confession, judgments of culpability, pleas, transfer to the adult system, and dispositions or sentencing. In collaboration with other researchers, The Youth Law & Psychology Lab has developed infographics to help parents, attorneys, and judges more effectively support with legally involved youth.

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