When someone says “polygraph,” typically people think of an adult male with a strange black cord wrapped around his chest, and what looks like a blood pressure monitor clipped to his finger. He is answering yes or no questions for some guy staring at a beeping machine in a “Law & Order” style interrogation room. What people do not think of is a seven-year-old child sitting in that chair being asked the same questions. However, polygraph testing juvenile offenders is a common treatment method used in juvenile correction centers all over the United States.

In 2001, a survey of 101 law enforcement polygraph examiners found that 74% of examiners had tested at least one juvenile offender under the age of 16. The youngest child reportedly tested was seven years of age. In 2017, Colorado Division of Criminal Justice reported that 361 juvenile sex offenders were required to take periodic polygraph tests as a part of their probation requirements in Colorado state alone.

Child's hands in handcuffs

How does a polygraph test work?

A polygraph test is machine-operated. The test measures a person’s physiological response to the answers they give to specific questions being asked by a polygraph examiner. The polygraph examiner then reads what the machine records to determine if the person is being truthful. Polygraphs are commonly used in the treatment of criminal sex offenders. Polygraphs are not used to solely determine someone’s guilt of a crime.


For what crimes are children polygraphed?

Examiners reported three main crimes that juvenile offenders were being polygraphed for in the United States:

  • Property-related crime
  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Child sexual abuse

Why is polygraph testing juveniles so common?

Polygraph testing has been a common practice in the treatment of criminal sex offenders since the late 1990’s, regardless of the age of the sex offender. In a study conducted in 2014, there was no significant difference in the accuracy rates of the polygraph examinations used in sex offender treatment between adults and juveniles.  The use of polygraph testing as a part of the treatment process through the criminal justice system is not relevant to age, but rather the crime committed.

Teenage boy behind bars in handcuffs

Why are polygraphs used on juvenile sex offenders?

The use of polygraphs in the rehabilitation and treatment of juvenile sex offenders is:

  • To encourage disclosure of additional sexual offenses
  • To test compliance with treatment or correctional setting rules and expectations
  • To determine if a juvenile sex offender is progressing positively through their treatment program

Concerns about polygraphing minors

The main argument against using polygraph testing on children under the age of 18, is that, depending on their age, the child may not fully comprehend the purpose of the polygraph test or have strong moral understanding to be able to produce the physiological responses needed for an accurate test reading.

The youngest age that many polygraph examiners recommend a test being conducted on is twelve. It is also recommended that a polygraph test be used as an additional treatment tool, rather than the only tool to determine a juvenile offender’s progression through a criminal justice program.

Neuroscientists have a slightly different argument against the use of polygraph testing on juvenile offenders. Their research indicates adolescents understand the difference between right and wrong when committing a crime. The part of their brain that is still developing, is the ability to regulate engagement in all risky behaviors; including criminal behavior.

Model brain of juvenile

Neuroscientists also caution the use of polygraph testing based on age as adolescent brains are developing at different rates from person to person. Therefore, their cognitive ability to understand the polygraph process may not be enough to provide an accurate polygraph test result. Thus, making the use of polygraph testing while in treatment less effective.  

A final point to consider when using polygraph testing with youth is the words used in the questions. 66% of polygraph examiners reported that they did not change the questions they asked juvenile offenders versus adult offenders. This could be a concern when determining the accuracy of a polygraph test depending on the juvenile’s language and word comprehension.

There is little evidence that supports that passing a polygraph test as a measure of positive completion of treatment actually reduces the risk of juvenile sex offenders from committing more crimes in the future. This means, that while polygraphs are a popular treatment tool in treating criminal sex offenders to encourage honesty and disclosure, they do not prevent future crimes being committed by that offender.

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