By Marco Negrete
Initial evidence suggests sleep deprivation can increase the chances of a crime suspect’s false confession by 450 percent.
This, according to a study conducted by Dr. Shari R. Berkowitz, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and a team of researchers at other universities.
In a nation with a prison population of upward of 2 million, it is estimated that 4.1 percent are wrongfully imprisoned.
Of these, it is further estimated that 15 to 25 percent are due to false confessions. In a shocking twist, the new research suggests a link between false confessions and sleep deprivation.
The area of interest initially intrigued Berkowitz when she was in college and motivated to help prevent innocent people from going to prison.
When the opportunity presented itself to work on the study, Berkowitz didn’t think twice.
“When my wonderful colleagues and I first connected, it seemed like a natural fit for us to examine the role of sleep deprivation on false confessions,” Berkowitz said.
The work resulted in a publication titled “Sleep Deprivation and False Confessions in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences journal.”
Berkowitz partnered with professors at the New School for Social Research, UC Irvine and Michigan State University. The research subjects were studied at a sleep clinic at Michigan State.
The study is a culmination of work done by Berkowitz and the three other professors. Initial results of the study were promising, proving that sleep-deprived participants were more likely to falsely admit guilt.
This result left Berkowitz with a looming question: Is this is a strategic method used by law enforcement to get confessions from suspects, innocent or not?
“While there certainly may be cases of law enforcement officers intentionally sleep depriving suspects, I believe that sleep deprivation may be a natural byproduct of law enforcement interrogation tactics,” Berkowitz said.
Even with the positive impact the initial study had linking sleep deprivation to false confessions, the link between sleep deprivation and true confessions was inconclusive.
“Based on these findings, I think it is important for law enforcement and the courts to carefully assess the probative value of a confession from a sleep-deprived suspect,” she said.
Even though the study resulted with some interesting findings, it did not come without challenges.
“The biggest obstacle I experienced was working out a convenient time for our many phone meetings,” Berkowitz said. “With two colleagues on the East Coast, and our conflicting schedules, it was often a challenge to find a time that worked for everybody.”
Berkowitz said the next step in the study is to analyze what happens when sleep-deprived participants are under circumstances more akin to real-life interrogations, as well as taking certain factors like general intelligence and impulsivity into consideration.
While the initial study provided positive and inspiring results more tests and research needs to be done, it is safe to say that Berkowitz and her colleagues have uncovered a true lack of certainty in the criminal justice system.