I am writing this letter to raise awareness concerning an urgent issue in the UK justice system. Namely, the issue of false confessions needs to be managed immediately. Although incriminating oneself is a rather unnatural choice to make, false confessions are far more common than one might think. Complicating the investigation and leading to innocent people being falsely accused, the subject matter represents a substantial problem in the criminal justice system. According to the available definition, a forced confession is the act of admitting the crime that one did not commit (Inbau, 2001). Since disclosure of fake self-inculpatory evidence represents a tremendous miscarriage of justice and imply that the actual perpetrator has not been caught, they need to be prevented. To avoid obtaining false confessions, legal officials must ensure that the person being questioned is not under the influence of any substances and has not been forced or intimidated into giving false statements. Thus, false confessions can be avoided by enhancing compliance with workplace ethics among law enforcement officers, as well as evaluating the state of the person being questioned.
The Problems of False Confessions
False confessions understandably lead to an array of problems and a tremendous miscarriage of justice. To illustrate the enormous extent of unfairness that fake self-inculpatory evidence entails, one might recall the case of the Birmingham Six (1972), when six Irishmen were falsely accused of pub bombings and sentenced to life in prison (Ainsworth, 2009). The case of Steven Downing (1974) also demonstrates the devastating effects of forced confessions, Downing’s eight-hour interrogation obviously causing him to confess under pressure (Inbau, 2001). Likewise, the cases of Stefan Kiszko (1976) and the rape of the Central Park jogger case (1989) have been the prime examples of false self-inculpatory evidence being forced out of suspects (Inbau, 2001). According to the existing statistical data, a total of 10-15% cases involve forced confessions (Inbau, 2001). Given the ample effect that the specified issue has on the rights of those falsely accused, as well as on the safety of the community, the problem must be addressed.
Types of False Confession
False confessions come in different forms, the existing taxonomy suggesting three primary ways of differentiating between key types thereof. Specifically, the suspect’s willingness to confess is typically used as the key characteristic, allowing to isolate voluntary, compliant, and internalized false confessions (Kassin et al., 2009). Voluntary ones suggest that an individual delivers the inculpatory information willingly, whereas compliant one implies the presence of pressure, and internalized one represents a case of being led to believe in one’s guilt.
What You Falsely Confess
The instances in which one could falsely confess vary broadly. For instance, in the famous “Alt” experiment, the participants were systematically accused of pushing the “Alt” button when typing the instructed text. Since the specified error is highly plausible the research participants did not confront those making false accusations; instead, they accepted the blame and continued typing (Ainsworth, 2009). The described outcome proves the necessity to ensure that the instances of being wrongly accused in the legal setting are minimized to zero.
False Confessions and Risk
The problem of being tricked into making a false confession is a threat to which anyone can be exposed. Therefore, efforts to increase awareness and mitigate the threat of fake self-inculpatory evidence must be introduced. However, certain risk factors increase individuals’ vulnerability. For instance, personal risk factors, such as suggestibility and developmental issues, particularly, the presence of learning difficulties, predetermine the increased exposure to the probability of false confessions (Kassin et al., 2009). Therefore, one must demonstrate caution when being exposed to the threat of involvement in a legal case.
Who Is Vulnerable to ‘False Confessions’?
People with mental health issues, particularly, behavioral disorders, face especially strong risks of being falsely accused (Williamson, 2004). However, other factors can also be at play in the rise in willingness of an individual to accept false accusations, including the presence of distorted perceptions and memories and age. Indeed, studies show that juveniles are significantly more perceptible to wrongful accusations and acceptance of guilt rather than adults (Geven et al., 2020). Finally, low IQ can also become a critical factor in fake self-inculpatory evidence due to the inability to communicate one’s position and introduce arguments against one’s innocence.
Who Is Vulnerable to ‘False Confessions?
Expanding upon the issue of IQ levels being one of the main culprits in false confessions, one must address several essential factors associated with low IQ and highly conductive to fake self-inculpatory evidence. Specifically, according to the findings of the study by Clare and Gudjonsson (1995), namely, the examination of the flaws in the Police and Criminal Evidence act 1984 as applied to people with mental health deficiencies, people with IQ of 60-75 were exposed to the threat of false accusations explicitly. Namely, the paper by Clare and Gudjonsson (1995) showed that the target audience was specifically prone to misunderstanding some of the legal standards, such as the possibility of retracting the statement later. Similarly, the target demographic demonstrated the assumption that they would be allowed to go home after making a confession. Finally, the target population was incapable of connecting the act of making a confession and the further threat of being accused in court (Clare & Gudjonsson, 1995; Gudjonsson et al., 2021). Therefore, people with disabilities must be seen as particularly vulnerable to being pressured into false confessions.
Influence of the ‘Police and Criminal Evidence Act’ (1984)
Admittedly, the observed flaw in the criminal justice system has been sought to be subjected to improvements. The “Police and Criminal Evidence Act” (1984) represents one of the key attempts at mitigating the negative effects of the current regulations. Specifically, according to the act, evidence obtained with the help of trickery or deceit could not be presented in court (Williamson, 2004). Similarly, pressuring people into providing evidence became a prohibited technique, which allowed reducing the threat of false confessions.
What Might Bring About a “False Confession”
Nevertheless, the threat of suspects making false confessions lingers in the current justice system. Specifically, the factors such as the length of interrogation and the use of specific interrogation tactic can be regarded as the main factors in eliciting fake confessions from an individual. Therefore, it is vital to keep the interrogation process two hours at most and ensure the protection of vulnerable participants. Namely, those with impair=red functions need to be accompanied by an adult legal guardian (Kassin et al., 2009).
Can a False Confession Be Retracted?
The intricate process of interrogation has a range of legal caveats; however, one of the main standards that one must keep in mind when being questioned by the police is that any state4ment is going to be exceptionally hard to retract. Therefore, when undergoing an interrogation, one must not admit what they have not committed, no matter how long the interrogation process takes (Memon et al., 2003). Breaking the specified principle entails extraordinary difficulty in retracting the statement for the suspect.
Can a False Confession Be Retracted? (Part 2)
Overall, false confessions represent a rather complex issue that requires significant time and effort to be proven as such and, therefore, defined as null and void in court. Furthermore, since confessions are viewed as one of the strongest types of evidence, retracting them represents a highly unlikely probability. Therefore, one must avoid giving false confessions at all cost.
The problem of fake self-inculpatory evidence can also be interpreted from a psychological perspective. Namely, the Attribution Theory should be applied to grasp the reason for the described phenomenon. Namely, making an attribution error by incorrectly linking specific characteristics, such as personality traits of a suspect, to the ostensibly committed crime, police officers are likely to make a false conclusion (Memon et al., 2003). Similarly, the presence of confirmation bias as the tendency to seek the evidence supporting the established claim often leads police officers to elicit false confessions from suspects (Memon et al., 2003). Therefore, the issue needs to be approached from a psychological perspective as well to be resolved successfully.
By encouraging ethical decision-making in law enforcement officers and aligning rigidly with the existing standards for the interrogation process, namely, ensuring that the person being questioned is not under the influence of any substances, one will be able to prevent false confessions from being made. As a result, an increase in the quality of the investigation process and the ultimate performance of the justice system is expected. Moreover, with a drop in the number of fake self-inculpatory evidence, the safety of communities will rise since the police will focus on capturing actual perpetrators, while avoiding the cases of false imprisonment. Overall, the proposed solution will lead to a substantial and noticeable improvement in the safety of communities.
Ainsworth, P. (2000) Psychology and crime: Myths and reality, London: Longman.
Clare, I. C., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (1995). The vulnerability of suspects with intellectual disabilities during police interviews: A review and experimental study of decision‐making. Mental Handicap Research, 8(2), 110-128.
Geven, L. M., Ben-Shakhar, G., Kassin, S., & Verschuere, B. (2020). Distinguishing true from false confessions using physiological patterns of concealed information recognition – A proof of concept study. Biological Psychology, 154, 1-9.
Gudjonsson, G. H., Gonzalez, R. A., & Young, S. (2021). The risk of making false confessions: The role of developmental disorders, conduct disorder, psychiatric symptoms, and compliance. Journal of Attention Disorders, 25(5), 715-723.
Inbau, F.E., Reid, J. E., Buckley, J., P., & Jane, B. C. (2001). Criminal interrogation and confession. Aspen.
Kassin, S. M., Drizin, S. A., Grisso, T., Gudjonsson, G. H., Leo, R. A., & Redlich, A. D. (2009). Police-induced confessions: Risk factors and recommendations. Law and human behavior, 34(1), 3-38.
Memon, A. A., Vrij, A., & Bull, R. (2003). Psychology and law: Truthfulness, accuracy and credibility. John Wiley & Sons.
Williamson, T. (2004). USA and UK responses to miscarriages of justice. In J. Adler (ed.). Forensic psychology: Concepts, debates and practice. Willan.