UA Study Seeks to Improve Miranda Right Comprehension for All

From the July 2018 Desktop News | Interacting with law enforcement has the potential to be stressful or frustrating for anyone. But for individuals with intellectual disabilities, these situations can be inordinately difficult.

However, through a project funded by the Alabama Council of Intellectual Disabilities, psychology doctoral candidate Sydnee Erickson and associate professor of psychology Karen Salekin are trying to change that. Their goal? Learn how people with intellectual disabilities  understand their Miranda rights and create programs to bridge the comprehension gaps.

Though the study is not yet finished, Erickson and Salekin have some preliminary results that suggest the gravity of the situation. After surveying 53 individuals with intellectual disabilities throughout Alabama, they found that the participants had lower than average unprompted recall of what their rights are, and, when read their rights, they had less comprehension of the vocabulary used within the rights.

“Between 10 and 15 percent of the participants were able to recall at least one of the rights,” Erickson said. “That is really low compared to the general population who recall the first four 50 percent of the time.”

The individuals with intellectual disabilities could also only define approximately four of the 36 words in the Miranda rights–much lower than the average of other populations.

“Though we were expecting that finding, it was a little shocking to realize that the level is so low,” Erickson said.

According to Erickson and Salekin, however, recall, comprehension, and vocabulary are not the only concerns. People with intellectual disabilities have the tendency to acquiesce—or give the same answer in a series of questions. For instance, when asked if they understand their rights or if they committed the alleged crime, some say yes almost compulsively, even if it is not true.

“That tendency to repeatedly say ‘yes’ can be really problematic in the interrogation setting,” Erickson said.

When the study is complete, Erickson and Salekin hope to use their findings to create programs to ease relations between law enforcement and individuals with intellectual disabilities. But until then, the pair hopes to raise awareness of their research.

“I think it’s important that we focus on these individuals who need extra protection and who are vulnerable,” Erickson said. “Our justice system is supposed to be fair, and it’s supposed to be equal, but if we don’t provide people with the protection or the education that they need, then we’re not being fair or equal.”