Parents’ understanding of the child welfare system

Parents’ understanding of the child welfare system

Although parent’s understanding of the juvenile dependency system is crucial to the case outcome, the current study shows that their understanding is limited and not appropriately assessed, which may lead to uninformed decisions that bear high costs to the families. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2018, Vol. 24, No. 4, 459–473

Parents’ Understanding of the Juvenile Dependency System


Kyndra C. Cleveland, Vanderbilt University
Jodi A. Quas, University of California–Irvine


A great deal of attention has been devoted to documenting the legal experiences and knowledge of children involved in the juvenile dependency system (i.e., child protection system). Such insight is critical to inform policies that profoundly affect children and families. However, the experiences and knowledge of another population involved in the dependency system are also critically important—namely those of the children’s parents. Parents’ understanding has enormous potential to affect their behaviors, ongoing decisions in the case, and the eventual case outcome. In the current study, 105 parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases were interviewed about their general and case-specific dependency understanding, including their understanding of commonly used dependency terms, the role of dependency professionals, and the purpose of key hearings. Parents, on average, evidenced a limited or partial general understanding of the system. More than half of the sample demonstrated a limited understanding of the judge’s specific decisions in their hearings, with 12% demonstrating no knowledge of the decisions rendered. Parents at particular risk for low understanding included fathers, those who were new to the system, those with no prior dependency contact as children, and those from low educational and minority backgrounds. Practical implications and recommendations for family dependency policy, including the need for a standard assessment of parent understanding and programs to improve knowledge, are discussed.


demographic, juvenile dependency, knowledge, parent, understanding

Summary of the Research

“When children experience neglect, abuse, or other forms of maltreatment at the hands of their parents, the entire family can become involved with social services, and eventually, the juvenile dependency system. This system has a primary goal of ensuring children’s safety and well-being, while also providing services to parents to help them improve upon the challenges that led to the initial social service and legal intervention. For children and parents, being a part of the juvenile dependency process is lifechanging: The decisions rendered throughout the case determine the amount of contact parents and children have with one another; what rehabilitative services are delivered, to whom, and for how long; and the permanent legal guardianship arrangement for children that will last into adulthood. […] We use the formal term, juvenile dependency system, to refer to the legal system that oversees cases of child abuse and neglect. Other related terms may include child welfare, child protection, or foster care.” (p. 459)

“Despite the gravity of the decisions made in juvenile dependency cases and the effects of those decisions for the entire family, virtually nothing is known about the extent to which all relevant participants in a case understand what is happening. […] Studying children’s understanding and experiences is critical. However, parents are also directly and personally involved, and their understanding is perhaps equally critical, at least for the progression and eventual outcome of the case and, as a consequence, for the children’s and family’s future.” (p. 459)

“From a practical and theoretical perspective, insight into parents’ understanding of the dependency system is relevant to a number of ongoing debates. These include debates concerning parental rights, family autonomy, and whether formal standards need to be established to ensure adequate participation in what is often viewed as a less formal system. Theoretical debates exist as well, concerning how court experiences shape perceptions of legal legitimacy and fairness, and the psychological health and well-being of participants in legal cases. In light of these debates, as well as the undeniable gravity of the decisions rendered in dependency cases, we conducted a much-needed investigation of parents’ legal understanding of the dependency system. We specifically examined how well parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases understand the dependency court process generally (i.e., their ability to define common dependency terms and answer questions about a hypothetical dependency case) and their case specifically (i.e., comprehension of the judge’s decision in a hearing that they just attended). We also examined whether general and case-specific understanding were related, and whether demographic and individual-level factors (e.g., race, education, income) predicted legal understanding.” (pp. 459–460)

“Recent national data indicate that there are 4.1 million reports of child maltreatment in the U.S. annually. Of these, 42% are screened out because of insufficient evidence, leaving child protective services (CPS) with 2.3 million reports to investigate further. […] Upon investigation of these allegations, some families may receive in-home services from CPS. However, if it is determined that the maltreatment is severe or the child appears to be at risk of imminent harm, CPS will submit a petition to refer the child to the juvenile dependency system. Once a dependency case is filed, the child may be removed from home and placed in a temporary out-of-home placement. Parents may secure their own legal representation, or if they cannot afford to do so, the court may assign them an attorney. If both parents are involved, each typically has individual representation. Another attorney is assigned to the child(ren). Each attorney is required to represent the interests of their assigned party.” (p. 460)

“Although juvenile dependency cases have a common underlying structure, there are also highly variable components, players, and procedures. In addition, court hearings and documents are imbued with legal jargon (e.g., de facto, concurrent planning) that can be difficult to comprehend, especially among individuals with low educational attainment, like many dependency-involved parents. All of this, combined with the complexity of the system and the multiple variations in the case, likely makes the dependency court process particularly difficult to understand for the population involved. If parents do not understand what is happening, their responsibilities, the roles of the professionals with whom they interact, the purpose of hearings, and the court orders, it is highly unlikely that parents will be able to comply with court mandates, putting reunification in jeopardy.” (p. 461)

“Current legislation regarding dependency cases is largely guided by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which aims to improve the timeliness of child permanency (i.e., safe and stable homes for children). […] relevance to the current study, parents are entitled to constitutionally afforded due process rights and rights related to their legal relationships with their children. […] Central to these rights is the need to understand the legal process, its potential consequences, and what is occurring in each hearing. In light of the central need for legal understanding when navigating a dependency case, it is perhaps surprising that there is no “legal right” to a basic understanding of the dependency system and one’s case. In criminal and some civil cases, competency standards exist to safeguard defendants who may otherwise have a poor understanding of the legal system and to facilitate defendants’ effective participation in their case. […] No such standards or expectations exist for parents in dependency cases, and in fact, until the present research, the level of these legal participants’ understanding generally and of their case specifically has not been the subject of empirical investigation. […] the extent to which parents’ attorneys provide them with necessary and requested information is unknown. And, even if attorneys provide this information, it is unknown whether parents are able to digest it and apply it to their cases. The current study served as an important initial investigation of what parents actually know about the system.” (p. 461)

“Insight into dependent parents’ legal understanding can also inform theoretical models of justice. […] If parents understand the dependency system, they may more readily perceive the system as fair or transparent and therefore legitimate. Such parents may then be more likely to comply with court orders, be present at court hearings, reunify with their children, and, of importance, not recidivate. Investigating parents’ understanding is a critical starting point for further tests of procedural justice concepts in the context of juvenile dependency court.” (p. 461)

“Finally, legal understanding is relevant to therapeutic jurisprudence, which is concerned with how the law relates to one’s psychological well-being and the ways in which the law can act as a therapeutic agent. […] Identifying gaps in parents’ understanding and then finding ways to fill those gaps may serve to improve parents’ psychological well-being during the case and ability to follow court mandates. […] If understanding affects compliance and reunification outcomes as well-established justice models would suggest, improving parents’ knowledge is in the best interest of all parties involved. Likewise, insight into dependent parents’ understanding may offer important ideas about new directions for procedural justice and therapeutic jurisprudence research, both of which have yet to be studied in this important population.” (pp. 461–462)

“Although prior research has not systematically examined legal understanding in dependency-involved parents, such understanding has been investigated in multiple other samples that share common characteristics with parents in the dependency system. […] Of particular relevance to the present research are studies of legal understanding of the juvenile justice system. […] Findings across these lines of work are fairly consistent in revealing significant gaps in general knowledge, with understanding at times being entirely nonexistent or even incorrect. […] Similar deficits exist in youth’s knowledge of their own case, which is perhaps not surprising given relations between children’s general and case-specific legal knowledge. […] Very few studies exist concerning parents’ legal knowledge, and those that do concern parents’ understanding of their child’s rights as a defendant and their rights as the child’s parent. Results reveal naïve and sometimes incorrect perceptions, among community samples and parents with a child in the delinquency system. […] Together, these lines of work reveal fairly low levels of knowledge among dependent and delinquent youth and parents of delinquent youth.” (p. 462)

“In the current study, parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases in Florida were interviewed about their general and case-specific legal understanding. To assess general knowledge, parents were asked to define commonly used dependency terms and were asked questions about a hypothetical vignette involving a dependency case. To assess case-specific understanding, parents were asked about recent decisions and hearings. Finally, parents provided information about their background, family, and prior legal experiences. Hypotheses were as follows: (a) A majority of parents would lack comprehensive general and case-specific understanding, similar to that observed in other high-risk populations of children, adolescents, and adults; (b) A positive relation would emerge between general and case-specific understanding; (c) Regarding demographic and background characteristics, being from a lower SES background (i.e., lower income and education) would predict less understanding. Tentatively, with income and education controlled, minority parents would evidence less accurate knowledge than majority-race parents. Finally, although length of time in the system is not consistently related to legal understanding in other populations , given nuances in the dependency process, and the number of hearings parents are required to attend, parents whose cases had been going on longer would evidence better legal understanding, in general and about their own case.” (p. 463)

Participants: 105 parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases; in each case either mother or father participated – in two cases both parents participated individually; 79% were mothers; ages 19–62 (M = 31.87); had between one and nine children (M = 3, SD = 1.64); 61% African American, 34.3% White, 3.8% Hispanic/Latino, 1% multiethnic or other.

“Parents’ reported level of education varied as follows: some high school (36.3%), high school diploma (24.5%), some college (32.4%), 2-year degree (2.9%), and 4-year degree (3.9%). No parent reported postgraduate training. For 76.5% of the parents, annual household income was less than $25,000. The remaining parents reported $25,000 –34,999 (15.7%), $35,000-$49,999 (5.9%), and $50,000-$74,000 (2.0%). […] Approximately one quarter of the parents had been involved with the dependency system as a child or teenager.” (p. 464)

“The current study was the first of its kind to systematically examine legal understanding in parents involved in ongoing juvenile dependency cases. […] Our first prediction, namely that knowledge would be limited, was confirmed. Parents demonstrated, on average, a limited or partial general understanding of the system (e.g., they could only marginally define such terms as guardian, petition, or case plan). Moreover, when understanding of hearing decisions was examined, parents fared only slightly better. […] As confirmation of our second hypothesis, the more parents understood generally, the more they understood about the decision in their specific hearing. The deficits in knowledge we found among parents in the current study in response to our questions are similar to deficits observed in other legal populations across multiple types of measures.” (pp. 467–468)

“Our third hypothesis was that several parent characteristics would predict variability in knowledge. Understanding was expected to be significantly lower for African American than White parents and those with lower rather than higher income and education. Poorer general legal understanding emerged among African American parents and those with lower levels of education, but not among parents who reported lower annual incomes. […] certainly greater education or perhaps nuances in quality of education could account, at least in part, for the differences in understanding of legal terms and processes. However, because education was included in our models, it does not fully account for our observed racial differences. Perhaps the way in which African American parents approach the system (e.g., with more caution given their general distrust of the justice system) or the way in which dependency professionals approach these parents (e.g., presentation of less information given perceptions of parents’ ability to understand legal concepts) contributed to the evident racial differences in legal understanding.” (p. 468)

“Other noteworthy characteristics also predicted general legal knowledge. With age and greater time in the system, understanding improved. However, parents’ case-specific understanding was unrelated to time spent in the system. […] Finally, parents who had previous involvement with the dependency system as a child and mothers (compared with fathers) understood the system better.” (p. 468)

“Despite these limitations, our study contributed valuable new knowledge. That is, we systematically examined, for the first time to the best of our knowledge, legal understanding in a critically important and marginalized population of legal participants We assessed their understanding empirically, so that we could begin to lay the groundwork for what is typical in terms of parent understanding, where gaps exist, and where interventions to augment understanding might be needed. We also laid the groundwork for future work assessing more nuanced facets of legal understanding, and critically, whether better understanding predicts increased compliance and engagement. Ultimately, the decision to fully engage in the dependency system is up to the parents and families involved. However, to engage, parents also need to fully understand their cases. Such understanding would provide them with the power to improve the plight of their families.” (p. 470)

Translating Research into Practice

“Several theoretical and practical implications can be drawn from the study’s results. First, when situated within the broader literature and theorizing on legal rights, procedural justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, our findings suggest that more consideration be given to parents’ experience of due process in juvenile dependency cases. Low levels of understanding may inhibit parents from receiving the intended benefits of their due process rights. […] Moreover, parents’ understanding may be related to important facets of procedural justice such as participant “voice” and “neutrality” in decision-making. […] If parents do not have a basic, general understanding of the system, it may be difficult for them to articulate or even hold a specific viewpoint about their case. In addition, judges may provide information about decisions made in hearings, but if parents do not understand these decisions, the judgments and outcomes can hardly be deemed “transparent.”” (p. 469)

“With regard to therapeutic jurisprudence, if poor understanding is not addressed, parents’ well-being may be adversely affected. That is, they may experience harm or stress stemming from confusion in an already difficult process. Second, in practical terms, our findings shed light on those parents at greatest risk of poor understanding within the dependency system. As has been found in the criminal justice system, minority families are particularly at risk of having a lower understanding of the dependency system, both generally and with regard to specific details of their case. Third, our findings highlight the need for assessments and programs to ensure that parents understand the general dependency process and important aspects of their case. […] although creating and enforcing knowledge standards in dependency cases would potentially place a burden on the judicial system, failing to adequately address low parental understanding in dependency cases is likely far more costly—to families and society as a whole, and also to the children of these parents who need permanency and stability. […] At the very least, jurisdictions should invest in programming aimed specifically at increasing parents’ understanding, particularly programs that help all families understand, including fathers, parents who are new to the system, parents who have not had prior dependency contact as children, and parents from low educational and minority backgrounds. All of these parents are at high risk of poor understanding, and evidence-based programs may be especially beneficial in improving long-term outcomes for these children, parents, and families.” (p. 469)

“In future directions of this work for practice, juvenile dependency courts may consider investing in families in two key ways: (a) Assessing parents’ understanding of their cases and (b) Providing opportunities for parents to increase their understanding. Of importance, implementing these procedures may be less costly than other measures (e.g., hiring more attorneys or social workers or paying for more of their time) and may contribute tremendously to parents’ engagement in the system, including their presence at hearings and active participation in court-mandated services (e.g., counseling). […] Assessments of parent understanding can be included in initial case planning and may provide an opportunity at the outset for parents to ask questions about how their case will work and to coordinate a plan for remaining informed as the case progresses.” (p. 469)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The study was […] limited, in part, by the nature of how data were collected, highlighting the need for continued research on legal understanding and experiences in this important population. For one, the stressful nature of having participated in these perhaps confusing and challenging hearings may have increased parents’ difficulty attending to and recounting case details, particularly because the interviews occurred on the same day as their hearings. Although this was advantageous in terms of recruitment, it may be valuable to question parents several days after their hearing to assess their knowledge in a potentially less emotionally laden context. Also, our sample comprised exclusively parents who showed up at court, and included more mothers than fathers. Mothers are more likely to be involved and participate in their dependency cases than fathers, and certainly their understanding is critical to the case. […] Obtaining information from both parents, whether they are together or not, would be a valuable addition to the study, as would collecting information from parents who fail to show for court. […] Finally, our initial cross-sectional study must be followed by longitudinal research to evaluate, in a temporal and causal manner, the links between parents’ understanding, behavior, and the case’s outcome, especially in terms of parents’ understanding of their own case and its requirements. Such investigations could further consider the broader culture and climate of social services and the courts to gain more comprehensive knowledge of parents’ understanding and experiences.” (p. 470)

Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Criminal Culpability of Juveniles: Adult Time for Adult Crime or Differential Treatment?

Criminal Culpability of Juveniles: Adult Time for Adult Crime or Differential Treatment?

This article summarizes the developmental differences between adolescents and adults, providing implications for differential treatment under criminal law. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2017, Vol. 23, No. 4, 410-420

Adolescent Brain Science and Juvenile Justice Policymaking


Laurence Steinberg, Temple University


The American legal system’s thinking about the criminal culpability of juveniles has been radically transformed over the past 12 years, largely as a result of the introduction of developmental science into the United States Supreme Court’s deliberations about the appropriate sentencing of adolescents who have been convicted of the most serious crimes. The author examines the role that developmental science, and, especially, developmental neuroscience, has played in this policy transformation. After a brief overview of the Court’s rulings in 4 landmark cases decided between 2005 and 2016, he summarizes the relevant psychological and neurobiological evidence that likely guided the Court’s rulings. The author concludes with suggestions for future research and policy analysis, including (a) the study of developmental differences between adolescents and adults that have implications for their differential treatment under criminal law, with a particular focus on the neural underpinnings of these differences; (b) the study of the impact of variations in juvenile justice policy and practice on outcomes other than recidivism; and (c) the study of the financial costs and benefits of juvenile justice policy alternatives.


juvenile justice, adolescent brain development, Supreme Court

Summary of the Research

“Few issues challenge a society’s ideas about both the nature of human development and the nature of justice as much as serious juvenile crime. Because we neither expect children to be criminals nor expect crimes to be committed by children, the unexpected intersection between childhood and criminality creates a dilemma that most people find difficult to resolve. Indeed, the only ways out of this problem are either to redefine the offense as something less serious than a crime or to redefine the offender as someone who is not really a child” (p. 410).

“For most of the 20th century, American society has most often chosen the first approach—redefining the offense—treating most juvenile infractions as matters to be adjudicated as delinquent acts within a separate juvenile justice system designed to recognize the special needs and immature status of young people and to therefore emphasize rehabilitation over punishment … In the latter decades of the 20th century, as violent youth crime rates rose, attacks on the juvenile court intensified. Critics railed at the depiction of young criminals as children, a characterization that was discordant with media images of teenage street gangs spreading fear in urban neighborhoods … Under the mantra of “adult time for adult crime,” young offenders became subject to increasingly harsh punishments, many of them administered by adult criminal courts and sometimes carried out within correctional facilities that had been previously reserved for individuals 18 and older” (p. 410).

“The American legal system’s thinking about the criminal culpability of juveniles has been radically transformed over the past 12 years, largely as a result of the introduction of developmental science into the United States Supreme Court’s deliberations about the appropriate sentencing of adolescents who have been convicted of the most serious crimes … My purpose in this article is to examine the role that developmental science, and, especially, developmental neuroscience, has played in this policy transformation” (p. 411).

“The logical starting point for such a discussion is the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished the juvenile death penalty, Roper v. Simmons, which was decided in 2005, because the logic that shaped the Court’s decision in this case has had a far-reaching effect on juvenile justice policy and practice, extending well beyond death penalty jurisprudence … Prior to 2005, in the United States, 16- and 17-year-olds who were convicted of homicide could receive the death penalty, and until 2010, individuals under the age of 18 could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for homicide and other crimes” (p. 411).

“In a series of cases decided during the past dozen years (see Table 1), the Supreme Court issued rulings that have banned the use of capital punishment and limited the use of life without the possibility of parole in cases involving juveniles who have been convicted of serious crimes and, more recently, opened the possibility for reconsidering the sentences of adults who are presently serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. The Court’s decisions were increasingly influenced by findings from studies of brain development to support the position that adolescents are less mature than adults in ways that mitigate their criminal culpability, and that adolescents’ diminished blameworthiness makes it inappropriate to sentence them in ways that are reserved for individuals who are deemed fully responsible for their criminal acts” (p. 411).

“In Roper, writing for the Court’s majority, Justice Kennedy explicated three characteristics of adolescents that distinguish them from adults in ways that mitigate their culpability. First, citing evidence of adolescents’ overinvolvement in reckless behavior, Kennedy concluded that adolescents are characterized by immaturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, which leads them to make impetuous and ill-considered decisions. Second, he noted that adolescents are more susceptible than adults to external influences, especially peer pressure, which makes it difficult for them to extricate themselves from “criminogenic” situations. Finally, referencing theories of identity development, Kennedy wrote that the personality traits of adolescents are less fixed than they are in adults, and that this makes it difficult to infer that even heinous criminal behavior during adolescence is evidence of an “irretrievably depraved” character” (p. 413).

“There is strong scientific support for Kennedy’s characterization of juveniles. In general, adolescents and individuals in their early 20s are more likely than either children or somewhat older adults to engage in risky behavior; most forms of risk-taking follow an inverted U-shaped curve with age, increasing between childhood and adolescence, peaking in either mid- or late adolescence, and declining thereafter. Involvement in violent and nonviolent crime also follows this pattern, referred to as the age-crime curve” (p. 413).

“In recent years, several psychologists have theorized that the relationship between age and risk-taking, including criminal activity, is best understood by considering the developmental trajectories of sensation-seeking and self-regulation. Sensation-seeking increases substantially around the time of puberty and remains high well into the early 20s, when it begins to decline. Self-regulation is low during childhood and improves gradually over the course of adolescence and early adulthood. Mid-adolescence, therefore, is a time of high sensation-seeking but still developing self-regulation—a combination that inclines individuals toward risky behavior” (p. 413-414).

“Over the period that spans Roper, Graham, Miller, and Montgomery, several amici assembled and summarized the scientific evidence showing differences between adolescents and adults in psychological capabilities and capacities that are relevant to judgments of blameworthiness. Importantly, they incorporated more and more neuroscience into their briefs, as evidence of significant structural and functional brain maturation during adolescence began to accumulate” (p. 414).

“The relevant evidence that was brought to the Court’s attention in the amicus briefs described a maturational imbalance during adolescence that is characterized by relative immaturity in brain systems involving self-regulation during a time of relatively heightened neural responsiveness to appetitive, emotional, and social stimuli. With respect to self-regulation, structural imaging studies using diffusion tensor imaging indicate immaturity in connections within a fronto-parietal-striatal brain system that supports various aspects of executive function. These connections become stronger over the course of adolescence as a result of both maturation and experience, and the strength of these connections is positively correlated with impulse control. Maturation of structural connectivity in this brain system is paralleled by increases in functional connectivity and by changes in patterns of activation during tasks that measure working memory, planning, and response inhibition (all of which are important for impulse control and thinking ahead)” (p. 414).

“By contrast, numerous fMRI studies show relatively greater neural activity during adolescence than in childhood or adulthood in a brain system, located mainly in the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, that is known to play an important role in the processing of emotional and social information and in the valuation and prediction of reward and punishment. According to what has been referred to as a “dual systems model,” the heightened responsiveness of this socioemotional incentive-processing system is thought to overwhelm, or at the very least, tax, the capacities of the self-regulatory system, compromising adolescents’ abilities to temper strong positive and negative emotions and inclining them toward sensation-seeking, risk-taking, and impulsive antisocial acts” (p. 414).

Translating Research into Practice

“By all indications, the influence of neuroscience on legal decision-making is growing rapidly, and references to adolescent brain development are appearing regularly in lower court decisions. As psychologists, we should welcome the use of scientific evidence in important legal deliberations. But in discussions of where we should draw legal boundaries between adolescents and adults, neuroscience should continue to play a supporting role, and behavioral science should continue to carry the weight of the argument” (p. 416).

“Further neuroscientific research on three specific issues would be especially helpful to future discussions of adolescents’ criminal responsibility. First, few studies have linked changes in brain structure or function between adolescence and adulthood to changes in the legally relevant behaviors, especially as they play out in the real world. Just because adolescents’ and adults’ brains differ doesn’t necessarily mean that they differ in ways that have legal relevance. It is certainly reasonable to speculate that adolescents who commit crimes make more impulsive decisions than their adult counterparts because their prefrontal lobes are less fully developed, or because their ventral striatum is more responsive to rewards or emotional stimuli. However, this remains largely a matter of what I would characterize as sensible conjecture. More research that directly links age differences in brain structure and function to age differences in legally relevant capacities and capabilities is needed” (p. 416).

“Second, there is growing interest in whether neurobiological data, either alone or in combination with other types of data, can improve the prediction of future behavior at the individual level, either with respect to recidivism or responses to intervention. Although there are studies that have compared juvenile offenders’ brain structure or function with that of nonoffenders, using neuroscience to predict individuals’ future behavior is a different (and more difficult) matter. And, of course, the key question is not what the individual’s brain is like at the time of a trial, but what we expect it to be like at some later point. Furthermore, it is not clear whether using neuroscientific data to foretell individuals’ future offending improves our prediction models by a significant enough degree over standard psychological assessments to warrant the added time and expense” (p. 416).

“Finally, it is not yet clear whether or how recent discoveries about continued brain maturation during the early 20s should lead us to rethink how we treat young adults who come into contact with the justice system. Some writers (generally, nonscientists) have pointed to this research as grounds for raising the age of legal adulthood, at least under criminal law, to age 21 or even 25. This proposition, although intuitively appealing, is potentially problematic” (see article for details; p. 416).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Studies of various justice system interventions find surprisingly few effects on rates of reoffending. The vast majority of juvenile offenders reoffend within a few years of their first offense, regardless of whether they have been treated in the community or in an institutional setting, and regardless of the specific intervention to which they have been exposed. This absence of effects can be looked at through very different lenses. A pessimistic interpretation is that very little works. A somewhat more positive view is that if less expensive interventions are just as effective (or as ineffective) as more costly ones, resources can be saved by opting for the less expensive ones and reallocating the savings elsewhere, perhaps to prevention efforts. A third perspective, and one to which I subscribe, is that perhaps recidivism is not the only metric along which we should evaluate juvenile justice policies” (p. 417).

“A major limitation of research on the consequences of justice system involvement is that it has focused almost exclusively on a single outcome—recidivism, ignoring other important developmental and behavioral outcomes. Yet, adolescents’ experiences with the justice system have the potential to substantially influence their life courses in both direct and indirect ways. For example, the few studies that have examined consequences of juvenile justice experiences other than recidivism has found that juvenile court involvement has a negative impact on educational outcomes, such as high school completion. However, it stands to reason that involvement with the juvenile justice system could affect adolescents’ lives in a range of domains” (p. 417).

“Adolescence is a critical period with regard to many aspects of development, not only academic achievement, such as social relationships, mental health, vocational preparation, and psychosocial maturity. Life events (such as incarceration) that disrupt functioning in one or more of these areas may have greater long-term consequences for adolescents than they do for adults. Apart from its impact on subsequent offending (whether positive or negative), justice system involvement may engender considerable human costs and/or benefits that have gone unrecognized and unaccounted for due to an exclusive focus on recidivism as the outcome of interest. Moreover, an absence of research on outcomes such as education, adjustment, employment, and family formation limits our ability to determine just what it is about incarceration that increases, rather than diminished, the odds of reoffending” (p. 417).

Authored by Becca Cheiffetz

publicBecca Cheiffetz is a master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She graduated in 2015 from Sam Houston State University with a BS in Psychology and plans to continue her studies in a Clinical/Forensic Psychology PhD program in the near future. Her professional interests include providing clinical evaluations and treatment for individuals in prison as a prison psychologist and conducting forensic assessments for defendants in criminal court.

Most Juveniles Who Commit Violent Offenses Do Not Reoffend in Adulthood

Most Juveniles Who Commit Violent Offenses Do Not Reoffend in Adulthood

These findings may help inform new delinquency interventions that target the needs of a small group of violent adolescent offenders accounting for a large amount of violent crimes. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2017, Vol. 41, No. 3, 273-283

Violent Offending Among Juveniles: A 7-Year Longitudinal Study of Recidivism, Desistance, and Associations With Mental Health


Sascha Hein, University of Houston
Baptiste Barbot, Pace University and Yale University
Amanda Square and John Chapman, Yale University
Catherine Foley Geib, Connecticut Judicial Branch, Court Support Services Division
Elena L. Grigorenko, University of Houston


Serious and violent offending among juveniles is a consistent concern of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, yet the development of violent offending remains poorly understood because of limited availability of relevant data, small sample sizes, and shortage of longitudinal data sets. This study analyzed developmental patterns of violent offending over 7 years in the complete population of court-referred youth in Connecticut between 2006 and 2012 (N 58,678; mean age at first offense 14.7 years). This unique dataset provided several key findings: First, results from a latent class growth analysis showed that violent crimes peaked at age 14–15, with high-rate adolescent offenders (3.7% of the sample) accounting for 31.9% of all violent offenses. Further, 74.2% of this group desisted from violent crimes in adulthood. Higher levels of self-reported anger/irritability slightly increased the odds of violent recidivism (odds ratio, OR 1.09), where higher levels of depression/anxiety depressed the odds (OR 0.89). The overrepresentation of males, non-Hispanic Black, and Hispanic youth among high-rate adolescence offenders were traceable through adolescence but not beyond the age of 18. Together, these finding may help to inform new delinquency interventions that target the needs of this proportionally small group of violent adolescent offenders accounting for a large amount of violent crimes.


juvenile delinquency, gender differences, ethnic differences, violent crimes, latent class growth analysis (LCGA)

Summary of the Research


“Juvenile delinquency is a common and troublesome phenomenon worldwide. In the United States, about 1.47 million juveniles were arrested in 2011, accounting for 12.7% of all violent crimes nationwide. Regarding the developmental patterns of criminal acts, the existence of an age-crime curve that peaks during adolescence has been well documented. The rate and severity of offenses occurring during this developmental period are particularly predictive of later offenses. Developmental criminological research has contributed to our understanding of many forms of acting-out and delinquent behaviors along the life-course, helping to describe their onset, patterns of continuity and extinction. From this literature, it is evident that not all forms of juvenile delinquency lead to an adult criminal career and that the adolescent-crime “peak” represents partly a developmentally grounded phenomenon. This peak is characterized by an overall increase of all types of crimes, including violent crimes, as aggressive and antisocial behaviors may be manifested in multiple new contexts in adolescence. The increase in violent crime in adolescence results from both an increase of crimes for youth who have had a history of violence and aggression before adolescence, and the onset of violent crimes in youth without a history of violent behavior” (p. 273-274).
“Despite this evident increase in adolescence, violent offenses among juveniles are rare and mainly committed by a small group of frequent and chronic offenders. Violent offenses are particularly concerning because they represent an overt pathway toward serious delinquency including violent and chronic offending during adolescence, and increase the likelihood of later adult offenses and arrests. Violent and serious offending in adulthood is associated with an earlier age of onset of criminal behavior, extensive criminal careers, and male gender and African American race, among other factors” (p. 274).
“Mental health problems are highly prevalent in youth involved in the juvenile justice system, with rates of any psychiatric disorders of 60–70% compared with 20% in community samples. Externalizing (e.g., conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and internalizing (e.g., major depression, anxiety) problems, as well as posttraumatic stress disorder symptom severity and psychotic symptoms are among the disorders found to be more prevalent. The substantial mental health needs in this group suggests that there is an association between certain mental health disorders and criminality, as well as between psychopathology and the seriousness of recidivism” (p. 274).

Current Study

“The current study had three aims: (a) to investigate the frequency of violent criminal offenses in a complete population of court-involved juveniles over the course of 7 years; (b) to examine whether gender, race and ethnicity, age at first offense, and mental health factors explain differences between one-time and repeated violent offenders; (c) to ascertain the developmental course of violent offending over time, identifying subgroups of juveniles with varying trajectories, and to link these trajectories to juveniles’ gender, race and ethnicity, and mental health” (p. 274).
“We analyzed a longitudinal statewide dataset of every criminal case record of all youth (N = 58,678) who committed at least one offense between January 1, 2006, and December 31, 2012. To count and compare the number of offenses across different offense types, we included all 58,678 individuals in the analysis. However, to model age trends, we focused on youth who committed their first offense between age 10 and 17 years (n = 57,847) because of the rarity of violent offenses in young children” (p. 274).
“Broadly defined, violent offenses included all crimes against persons, specifically, criminal homicide, robbery, assault, violent sex offenses, and other person offenses (e.g., reckless endangerment, kidnapping, and strangulation). Accordingly, we first grouped offenses committed between the age of 10 and 17 into five categories to derive a count of five types of violent offenses: homicide, robbery, assault, violent sexual offenses, and other crimes against persons (e.g., reckless endangerment, strangulation, and threatening). For comparison, we counted all offenses in the categories of status offenses, property offenses, drug law violations, and crimes against public order” (p. 274-275).
“The Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument—Version 2 (MAYSI-2) data were available for a subsample of 10,105 juveniles. It consists of seven scales including Alcohol/ Drug Use, Angry-Irritable, Depressed-Anxious, Somatic Com- plaints, Suicide Ideation, Thought Disturbance, and Traumatic Experiences. Threshold scores (with score ranges designated as “Caution” and “Warning”) assist in the identification of youth with potential mental health problems in need of additional psychiatric evaluation, immediate attention, and possible intervention” (p. 275).


“Assault was the most frequently committed violent offense, while homicide was the least prevalent violent offense. Among other offense types, crimes against public order were the most common offense and drug law violations were the least common. Regarding the patterns of repeated offending, the highest percentage of juveniles committing two or more offenses was observed for crimes against public order, while 13.95% of the sample committed two or more violent offenses. Overall, there were 16,809 juveniles who committed a total of 25,508 violent offenses. In this sample, the prevalence of offenses increases with age across all types with a peak at age 15, followed by a steep decrease at age 16 and 17. Together, 14- and 15-year-olds account for about half of all offenses committed by 10- to 17-year old juveniles” (p. 276).
“The offender profiles across the five offense types were analyzed with a zero-inflated Poisson LCA. Results showed that a three-class model fit best to the data. On average, youth in Class 1 (“property offenders”) showed elevated levels of violent offenses and crimes against public order compared with Class 2, which had the highest mean level for property offenses and drug law violations among all three classes, and a similarly low mean level of status offenses as the other classes. Juveniles in Class 2 (“low-level offenders”) represent the largest group, characterized by overall low mean levels across the five offense types. Juveniles in Class 3 (“violent offenders”) showed the highest mean levels of violent offenses and crimes against public order in the sample, had a higher level of property offenses than low-level offenders, and showed overall low levels of status offenses and drug law violations. Males were overrepresented among property offenders as well as among violent offenders whereas gender was more balanced in low-level offenders. Race and ethnicity differences were observed across classes with Black non-Hispanic juveniles being overrepresented among violent offenders and property offenders. Hispanic youth were also overrepresented among violent offenders” (p. 276-277).
“Additional analyses presented here were conducted on the subsample of individuals with available MAYSI data. The sample was characterized by an overall low level of alcohol and drug use, compared with higher levels on the angry-irritable, depressed-anxious and somatic complaints subscales. Zero-inflated Poisson regression models were utilized to predict the number of violent offenses using demographic variables as covariates (gender, race/ethnicity, and age at first offense) and the MAYSI scores as the focal variables. One-unit increases in scores on the alcohol/drug use subscale of the MAYSI increases the count of violent offenses by 1.06 units. Somatic complaints decreased the number of violent offenses. Regarding the demographic variables, results showed that the count of violent offenses for Black, non-Hispanic and Hispanic juveniles increases by 1.63 and 1.34, respectively, compared with White, non-Hispanic juveniles. Moreover, for each unit (i.e., 2.4 months) decrease in the age at first offense, the log count of violent offenses increases by 1.18” (p. 277-278).

“Finally, a logistic regression analysis was conducted to identify factors that discriminate one-time violent offenders from recidivists. Regarding the MAYSI subscales, one unit increase in scores on the angry-irritable scale increase the log odds of reoffending by 0.10, whereas one unit increases in the depressed-anxious scale and the somatic complaints scale decreased the log odds of recidivism by 0.10 and 0.04 units. Race and ethnicity also contributed significantly to the prediction of group probabilities. Specifically, the odds of Black, non-Hispanic juveniles recidivating with a violent offense were 2.14 times higher as compared with White, non-Hispanic youth. Similarly, the odds of Hispanic juveniles recidivating were 1.50 times higher as compared with White, non-Hispanic youth. Moreover, juveniles who were younger at their first offense were more likely to be violent reoffenders. One unit decrease in the age at first offense increased the log odds of violent reoffending by 0.317” (p. 278).
“The next set of analyses identified two classes of juveniles who qualitatively differed in their mean growth of violent offending between the age of 10 and 17. Juveniles in Class 1 are characterized by an evident peak of violent offending in adolescence (age 14–15), followed by a decline in violent offending at the age of 16 and 17. Although the class of high-rate adolescence peak juveniles constitutes a small proportion of the overall sample, they accounted for 31.9% of all violent offenses recorded for juveniles in the age of 10 to 17. The majority of youth followed a pattern that can be described with a low peak of violent offending in adolescence (age 14–15)” (p. 279).

“Small differences between both classes were observed regarding the levels of mental health factors in the subsample of juveniles with available data. High-rate adolescence peak offenders had higher scores on the alcohol/drug use subscale compared with low-rate adolescence peak offenders. However, compared with high-rate adolescence peak offenders, low-rate adolescence peak offenders had higher scores on the depressed-anxious subscale, higher scores on the somatic complaints subscale, and higher scores on the suicide ideation subscale. Males were overrepresented among high-rate adolescence peak offenders compared with low-rate adolescence peak offenders. Regarding race and ethnicity, Black, non-Hispanic juveniles were overrepresented among high-rate adolescence peak offenders compared to low-rate adolescence peak offenders, as were Hispanic youth” (p. 279-280).
“As apparent from the decline in the age-crime curve after age 15, not all high-rate adolescence peak offenders continue to commit violent offenses in adulthood. Although these juveniles were almost three times as likely to commit a violent offense beyond age 18 compared with low-rate adolescence peak offenders, this finding highlights that the majority of youth did not reoffend as an adult. To further elucidate the differences between violent reoffenders based on these trajectories, we compared two subgroups of high-rate adolescence peak offenders with regard to the MAYSI-2 variables, gender, race and ethnicity, age at first offense, and age at first violent offense: youth who committed at least one violent offense as an adult and youth who did not. Results showed no differences between high-rate adolescence peak offenders who recidivate as an adult and those who do not with regard to gender and mental health. Results showed no significant race and ethnicity differences between violent reoffenders in adulthood and desisting juveniles. Taken together, the overrepresentation of males, Black, non-Hispanic, and Hispanic youth in the class with a peak of violent offending in adolescence were traceable up to adulthood but not beyond the age of 18 among high-peak adolescence offenders” (p. 280).

Translating Research into Practice

“Consistent with prior evidences in the literature, the descriptive analysis of the violent crimes committed by juveniles in CT during the years 2006–2012 clearly confirms a “peak” of offenses around age 15. Moreover, the frequency of all types of crime appears to increase noticeably from early adolescence to age 15, and concerns all types of crimes including violent crimes. After the peak at age 15, the prevalence of all offenses reduces at or below the level of 14-year-olds, except for the drug offenses, which is the only offense type that is not associated with a decrease in prevalence after age 15” (p. 280).
“A closer look into the types of violent offenses further elucidates these developmental trends: Assault accounts for most of the increase of violent offenses during the adolescence “peak,” while sex offenses and homicides remain extremely rare with a relatively stable prevalence across age groups. This result mirrors longitudinal findings showing that trajectories of physical aggression are particularly unstable, with a common temporary elevation during “normative” adolescence turmoil. Together, these results are consistent with the fact that some of the developmental changes in the peak of the adolescence “crisis” place youth at risk for externalizing behaviors. These changes include neurobiological changes, psychosocial changes, contextual changes, as well as increased susceptibility to deviant peers influence” (p. 280).

“Adding to the body of research showing the relationship between mental health and juvenile delinquency, the present study elicited differences between high-rate adolescence peak offenders characterized with higher anger-irritability and alcohol and drug use, and low-rate adolescence peak offenders, showing higher depression-anxious, somatic complaints and suicidal ideation. Similarly, anger-irritability increased the odds of reoffending with another violent crime, whereas depression/anxiety and somatic complaints decreased such odds. The literature suggests that clinical depression is associated with an increased risk of violent crime. However, the literature examining the association between psychiatric traits and violent crime is limited. It is plausible that an individual’s ability to feel remorse, guilt, and worry about his or her performance might reflect normative reactions to the committed offense and, therefore, decrease the odds of reoffending. Another explanation for this difference is that violent crimes may be underreported. Therefore, the difference may pertain only to those charged with violent reoffending rather than those who have engaged in repeated violent criminal behaviors. Furthermore, although individuals with higher levels of mental health needs may commit crimes at disproportionate rates, the offenses may not be directly related to disorder symptoms but stemming from third factors and needs such as homelessness, poverty and unemployment that result in less severe crimes” (p. 280).

“Regarding gender, racial, and ethnicity differences, it is well acknowledged that males commit violent crime at higher rates than do females. In this sample, males were overrepresented among violent and property offenders, as well as in the class characterized by the peak of violent offending in adolescence. However, the count of violent offenses was not significantly associated with gender. A possible explanation for this finding is that the gender gap in violent offending has narrowed over time in youths, except for high-level adolescent offenders. Another explanation is that, although arrests for both male and female youth have decreased in recent years, the rates of decreases are lower for females than for males. In this sample, Black, non-Hispanic, and Hispanic juveniles were overrepresented among violent and property offenders as compared with White, non-Hispanic juveniles. This overrepresentation of minority youth, particularly for violent crimes, is in accordance with national data” (p. 280-281).

“Additionally, in this analysis, Black and Hispanic racial and ethnic backgrounds were found to be among the significant factors in discriminating one-time violent offenders from recidivists, which is in direct contrast with the findings from a recent meta-analysis. Reasons for this discrepancy include the use of adult offender samples in most of the studies, different indicators of violent behavior than the ones used in the present study, and follow-up periods to measure recidivism that ranged from 6 months to 10 years. Yet, the link between violent reoffending and race and ethnicity may be attributable to factors not considered in this analysis. For instance, other research studies have found that the association between juvenile recidivism in general and non-White race does not remain significant after addressing variables such as SES. In our analyses, we controlled for an imperfect measure of SES as operationalized by eligibility for free and reduced lunch in school. Arguably, other indicators of SES (e.g., family income) should be taken into account. Moreover, the associations between race/ethnicity and violent offending might represent an accumulation of risks located at multiple contextual levels, as differences in offending between Whites and minority groups have been linked to community disadvantage, residential inequality, and social cohesion in community contexts” (p. 280-281).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Violent offenses constitute an evident behavior among other types of delinquent and deviant behavior. However, repeated violent offending remains a rare phenomenon, hampering the robust inference of the developmental course of violent offending across the formative years of adolescence. Despite the potential underestimation of violent offending because of the use of administrative data, the study presented here is unique in that it used a statewide longitudinal dataset that encompasses the entire population of court-involved youth, allowing for the investigation of the magnitude and the age-patterns of violent offending in conjunction with mental health needs of more than 10,000 individuals. Contrary to studies that have used selected samples of juvenile and outlined a great diversity of (nonviolent) offense trajectories in adolescence, this study elicited for the first time the clear distinction between two classes of violent offenders (high-rate vs. low-rate)” (p. 281).

“The existence of a group of few violent offenders (emerging as early as 12 years of age, and peaking between the age of 14 –15 years) that accounts for a large proportion of violent offenses highlights the implications for appropriate delinquency interventions for different subgroups of youth. This is particularly important given that many high-risk juvenile offenders do not receive an evidence-based intervention such as multisystemic therapy. Thus, there is a need to maximize the effort to differentiate and tailor interventions to meet specific needs of violent offenders. Moreover, given that some youth persist with violent behavior into adulthood, it is important to examine the long-term effects of such interventions and to determine potential mechanisms of change. The present study has offered some preliminary insights toward this endeavor, by eliciting key demographics, mental health conditions and other individual factors associated with heightened risk for the most serious forms of criminal careers” (p. 281).

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As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Becca Cheiffetz

Becca Cheiffetz is a master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She graduated in 2015 from Sam Houston State University with a BS in Psychology and plans to continue her studies in a Clinical/Forensic Psychology PhD program in the near future. Her professional interests include providing clinical evaluations and treatment for individuals in prison as a prison psychologist and conducting forensic assessments for defendants in criminal court.
Juveniles Who Receive More, Knowledgeable Support From Their Mothers May Be Less Likely To Re-Offend

Juveniles Who Receive More, Knowledgeable Support From Their Mothers May Be Less Likely To Re-Offend

Mothers’ knowledge of the justice system may influence juvenile re-offending. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2017, Vol. 23, No. 2, 141-153

What They Don’t Know Can Hurt Them: Mothers’ Legal Knowledge and Youth Re-Offending


Caitlin Cavanagh Michigan State University
Elizabeth Cauffman University of California, Irvine


Juvenile offenders may be too young to manage the terms of their probation independently; a parent’s participation in the probationary process is critical for youths’ successful transition to crime desistence. However, a parent’s capacity for support during his or her child’s legal process may depend on the parent’s knowledge of how the justice system operates. The present study is the first to quantify mothers’ knowledge of the juvenile justice system. The authors examine the association between mothers’ legal knowledge, legal participation, and youth re-offending using a longitudinal sample of 324 dyads (total N 648) of mothers and their sons, all first-time juvenile offenders. Results indicate that mothers averaged a 66% out of 100% on a test of legal knowledge. Importantly, those mothers who knew the least about the system also participated the least in their son’s legal process, and mothers who participated the least had sons who self-reported re-offending more within the first year after his arrest. Practitioners are encouraged to educate parents of juvenile offenders about their rights and responsibilities in the courtroom and on probation, to create meaningful avenues for parental involvement, and to set youth up for success after a first arrest.


justice system knowledge, juvenile justice, parenting, delinquency

Summary of the Research

“Juvenile offending inflicts high costs on individuals, families, and communities. A principal goal of the juvenile justice system is to ensure that youthful offenders desist from crime during and after their time on probation, as re-offending results in prolonged justice system involvement. However, juvenile offenders may be too young to independently manage all the terms of their probation (e.g., transportation to court appointments, understanding of the court system, finances to pay for court fees, etc.). For this reason, a parent’s capacity to provide support during the probationary process is critical for a youth’s successful transition to crime desistence” (p. 141).

“Parental engagement and support is key to youth success in academic settings, autonomy development, relational competence, and a host of other domains. For example, parents who participate more in their children’s education (e.g., attending parent–teacher conferences, making sure that homework is completed) have children who are more successful in school. It is also likely that parents who participate more in their children’s legal proceedings (e.g., attending court dates and meeting with probation officers) will have children who are more successful in crime desistence after their first arrest. Indeed, it is assumed that parental involvement in youths’ legal proceedings after an arrest is important. Yet, the relation between parents’ participation in legal proceedings and youth re-offending has not been tested directly.” (p. 141).

“As a result of children’s well-recognized dearth of legal knowledge, a foundational expectation of the juvenile justice system is that parents partner with the system and help guide their youths through the process. However, there is a great deal of contradiction regarding what role parents are expected to play in their children’s legal proceedings. On the one hand, parents are expected to protect their children’s legal welfare (e.g., monitoring and enforcing probation terms, providing practical assistance such as transportation to court appointments). On the other hand, parents may also be expected to partner with legal actors in a way that might not be considered in their children’s best interest. For example, a parent may report his or her child’s violations to his or her probation officer, or encourage the child to make a confession for moral, rather than legal reasons…Given these tensions and inconsistencies in the proper role of parents in the court room, a thorough knowledge of the juvenile justice system is necessary for parents to understand their role in aiding their children” (p. 142).

“Troublingly, a large-scale national review of parental involvement in juvenile courts concluded that there are few resources available to educate parents in the juvenile justice process. Indeed, many probationary programs offer little or no education for parents as far as their family’s rights and duties. Among laypeople, knowledge about the law is limited, and no previous research has comprehensively measured parents’ knowledge of legal rights and responsibilities within a juvenile justice setting. Despite the expectation that parents will help their children meet their legal requirements, it is not presently known whether parents have the requisite knowledge to do so. For example, if a parent does not know that conversations with a youth’s probation officer are not confidential, the parent may reveal incriminating evidence to their son’s probation officer, resulting in harsher sanctions or extended probationary terms” (p. 142).

“The current study extended the present literature in two important ways: First, we examined a sample of justice-involved parents and adolescents to improve the ecological validity of the study. Second, the present study evaluated parents’ legal knowledge about the juvenile court and probation (back-end processes following an arrest), rather than police interrogations (front-end processes that precede an arrest). Doing so assessed gaps in parents’ knowledge associated with youth re-offending after his first arrest, an important juncture for youth desistance from crime” (p. 143). The study focused on female parents specifically due to less reliable access to male parents in this sample. Participants were selected from the Crossroads study and consisted of 324 mother-son dyads.

“Overall, mothers received an average score of 65.99% out of 100% on the measure of legal knowledge. Many of the frequently missed questions (20 –29% correct, on average) seemed to be those regarding the roles and duties of a probation officer and the plea decision. The questions most frequently answered correctly (93– 99% correct, on average) were those regarding courtroom procedure (e.g., the right to an interpreter in the courtroom, a warrant will be issued if a youth does not appear for his court date, court-ordered counseling may be mandated)” (p. 147).

Mothers who had been arrested themselves, had higher education levels, and those with higher household income knew more about the legal system. Racial differences on knowledge of the legal system were also found such that Latina women knew the least about the legal system followed by Black women and then White women. Women who were born in the United States and those who spoke fluent English were also more knowledgeable about the justice system.

“Because our sample consisted of youth and mothers who had just experienced their first encounter with the justice system, the present study is uniquely qualified to test the typical knowledge and participation of families who are entering the justice system for the first time. Several important findings emerged from the study. First, we find that mothers, in general, averaged 66% correct on a series of questions designed to test their knowledge of the juvenile justice system. Second, mothers who knew less about the juvenile justice system also participated less in their sons’ legal proceedings. Third, those mothers who participated less had sons who were more likely to report engaging in re-offending behavior. Overall, our results suggest that a mother’s legal knowledge is associated with her legal participation, as well as her son’s re-offending behavior after his first arrest” (p. 149).

Translating Research into Practice

“Mothers’ overall lack of knowledge about the juvenile justice system is troubling; particularly striking is the knowledge disparity among women. Results from the present study shed light on one mechanism through which juvenile offenders from minority and low SES families may be at a disadvantage in the juvenile justice system: their legal knowledge. Household income, primary language, and race were associated with less knowledge of the justice system. Although it may seem counterintuitive that mothers’ education attainment was not associated with legal knowledge, this is likely because of the dearth of legal/civic instruction received during postsecondary education. As baccalaureate degrees become increasing specialized, higher educational attainment may not guarantee exposure to knowledge of legal and civic issues. Indeed, only through specific legal training is it likely that more education would amount to greater knowledge of the justice system” (p. 149).

“To reduce youth re-offending after his first arrest, a youth’s primary support system— his parents—must be informed and engaged about the process. This is particularly true of parents who, absent other intervention, may be at a disadvantage in helping their children navigate the juvenile justice system. Indeed, previous research suggests that limited parental involvement in juvenile court processes is not typically attributable to poor parenting, but rather to life stressors. The present study extends this research by suggesting that lack of knowledge may be a reason that parents are less involved with their children’s legal process” (p. 150).

“Perhaps the most important finding from the present study is that we suspect a downstream effect of a mother’s legal knowledge to her legal participation, to her son’s success after an arrest. The benchmark for appropriate participation may be unclear for some parents. Yet, our results indicate that mothers’ participation in the legal process is associated with reduced youth re-offending, even above and beyond the effect of youths’ prior offending behavior. Because mothers with greater knowledge of the justice system had sons who re-offended less, educating mothers about the juvenile justice system may be a critical point of intervention to improve youth probationary outcomes. This is especially important for families who are linguistic and racial minorities, as well as those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, given that these families displayed the least legal knowledge in the present findings. Indeed, results from the present study suggest that the families most in need of an education intervention are the very families whose children are often overrepresented in the juvenile justice system” (p. 151).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Interestingly, Latina mothers showed the highest participation in youth legal proceedings. Parenting values and child rearing practices vary among different cultures. For example, the idea of familismo (a strong, loyal family unit) is highly valued in the Latino culture. Although familismo was not measured in the present study, it could be that Latina women displayed the highest participation because the sense of family unity is culturally salient within Latino families. Because strained family ties are associated with increased psychological distress among Latina women, it stands to reason that Latina mothers in the present sample may have stood by their sons after his arrest to reaffirm the strength of the family’s relationship” (p. 150).

“The results from the present study suggest that legal education should be a key component of parental involvement in legal proceedings. Although youth are not obligated to follow the advice of their parents but rather have the right to a client-centered attorney to advocate for them, children are more successful in completing their probationary terms and desisting from crime when their parents are included in the legal process. Just as schools foster parental engagement in their children’s education, so too should probationary programs educate parents on how they can help their youth succeed after an arrest. By giving parents the knowledge they need to navigate the justice system, parents will be better situated to truly partner with probation to help their youth succeed after a first arrest” (p. 151).

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As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

About the Author

Amanda L. Reed is a doctoral student in John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s clinical psychology program. She is the Lab Coordinator for the Forensic Training Academy. Amanda received her Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wellesley College and a Master’s degree in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her research interests include evaluator bias and training in forensic evaluation.

Youthful Status a Risk Factor for False Guilty Pleas

Youthful Status a Risk Factor for False Guilty Pleas

With respect to age-related differences in true and false guilty pleas, youthful status may be a risk factor for false guilty pleas. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2016, Vol. 40, No. 6, 611-615

To Please or Not to Plead: A comparison of Juvenile and Adult True and False Plea Decisions


Allison D. Redlich, George Mason University
Reveka V. Shteynberg, University at Albany, State University of New York


In a criminal justice system in which almost every adjudicated defendant, regardless of age, pleads guilty, it becomes important to understand the decision-making process underlying this choice. In the present research, we examined how age (juvenile vs. young adult), guilt versus innocence, and plea comprehension influenced the decision to plead guilty and the underlying plea rationale. We found that whereas age did not affect willingness to plead guilty when participants were asked to assume guilt in a hypothetical scenario, juveniles were more than twice as likely as young adults to plead guilty when asked to assume innocence. In addition, consistent with past research and developmental theory, juveniles were significantly less likely than adults to consider the short- and long-term consequences of the decision, and to understand and appreciate plea-related information. We also found that legal knowledge, after controlling for age, was positively (albeit weakly) related to plea decisions, but only for guilty participants. Implications for juveniles and adults involved in the criminal justice system, as well as wrongful convictions, are discussed.


guilty pleas, defendant decision-making, juvenile and adult plea comprehension

Summary of the Research

“An examination of the wrongful conviction cases involving false (police-induced) confessions reveals that juveniles are at special risk (Kassin et al., 2010). For example, 33% of Drizin and Leo’s (2004) sample of 125 proven false confessors were juveniles. A relatively unexplored question is whether youthful status is also a risk factor for false guilty pleas—that is, pleading guilty to crimes when factually innocent. Indeed, the question of whether juveniles are more likely than adults to plead guilty when factually guilty has not been sufficiently addressed. In the present study, we examine, first, whether juveniles are more or less likely to plead guilty when asked to assume they are guilty and innocent, and second, the rationales underlying plea decision making for juveniles and adults. We also assess comprehension of plea-relevant materials to determine whether this influences willingness to plead guilty.” (p. 611)

“There is also evidence demonstrating that defendants are not rational plea decision-makers (see Redlich, Bibas, Edkins, & Ma-don, in press). Indeed, Bordens (1984) found that defendants were more likely to make satisficing (a hybrid term of satisfactory and sufficient) decisions, rather than optimizing ones. Simply seeking the most benefit is unlikely to explain variations in plea decision making. Additional factors that may influence plea decision making and decision justifications are defendant’s age, understanding, and whether one is guilty or innocent; these factors and the relations between them are our focus here.” (p. 612)


“Participants included 189 individuals, split into two age groups: 89 juveniles (aged 13–17 years), and 100 young adults (aged 18 –24 years)…Juveniles and young adults were similar in most respects, including gender, percent ever arrested, average grades in school, level of mother’s education, and self-reported impulsivity. However, a higher proportion of the juveniles were minorities than the young adults.” (p. 614)

“First, participants were asked demographic questions. Second, the interviewer read the hypothetical case aloud to the participant while they read along. Third, participants read the written tender-of-plea form, were asked if they had any questions after reading the form, and were then asked to enter a written plea of Guilty or Not Guilty. Then, a judge (a female confederate wearing a black robe and holding a gavel) entered the room and conducted the oral plea colloquy. Participants were asked to rise and answer the judge’s questions, including the final question about whether they wanted to waive their rights and plead guilty or invoke their rights and plead not guilty. At three separate times, judges asked participants if they had any questions about their rights or consequences of pleading guilty (in addition to specific points of understanding; e.g., “Do you understand that you will only be allowed to withdraw your plea if you show that it was not knowingly and voluntarily made?”). Next, participants were interviewed. They were asked about the rationales underlying their plea decision and about their perceived voluntariness of, and confidence in, their plea decision. Participants were also asked the manipulation check questions, interviewed about their plea understanding via the plea knowledge measures described above, and assessed on their adjudicative competence using the MacCAT-CA.” (p. 616)


“Specifically, when participants were asked to assume guilt, the difference in decisions to plead guilty remained nonsignificant between juveniles and young adults. When asked to assume innocence, however, juveniles were 2.47 times more likely to plead guilty than adults. Results remained the same when rerun with the entire sample.” (p. 616)

“Three of the four univariate effects of age group were significant. With the exception of MacCAT-CA Reasoning scores, juveniles scored significantly lower on plea and legal knowledge than adults. When the same MANOVA was rerun with the entire sample, again only the multivariate effect of age group was significant.” (p. 617)

Translating Research into Practice

“Almost all adjudicated adult and juvenile defendants plead guilty. Over the past 15 years, the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) has conducted more than 20 assessments of state juvenile. In doing so, they examined the plea process, noting common problems across sites, such as high rates of pleas, pleas occurring early in the process (leaving no time for investigation, trust-building, or education), unknowledgeable pleas, developmentally inappropriate, incomplete, and even inaccurate plea colloquies, and systemic setting problems around culture and judge- attorney interactions.”

“Both youth and probation officers commonly reported intense pressure to plead, which they attributed to insufficient time attorneys spent with youth, attorneys’ failure to explore and/or understand the youths’ wishes, and lack of investigation into the case. These trends noted by the NJDC assessments, in combination with results from the present research, suggest that innocent juvenile defendants processed in juvenile court, may be especially likely to falsely plead guilty.” (p. 622)

“Findings from the present research indicate that youthful status may also be a risk factor for false admissions in the form of false guilty pleas. Given the extremely high rate of convictions via pleas in our criminal justice system, and the increasing identification of wrongful convictions, it is important for researchers and practitioners to better understand the complexities of the guilty plea decision among juvenile and adult defendants.” (p. 623)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“In addition to replicating the findings that juveniles have a depreciated understanding and appreciation of legal concepts (both general and specific to pleas), our findings also demonstrate that such a decreased understanding may influence decision making over and above chronological age. Further, the present research did not only examine whether juveniles are at increased risk for true and false guilty pleas, but also examined why. Our plea rationale findings, on the one hand, indicate that juveniles are less likely than adults to consider the short- and long-term consequences in their decisions to plead guilty and not guilty. On the other hand, we did not find age to influence endorsement of other plea rationales, including ones relating to morality and risk-taking.” (623)


Authored by Kenny Gonzalez

Kenny Gonzalez is currently a master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College. His main research interest include forensic assessment, specifically violence risk. In the future, Kenny hopes to obtain a Phd in clinical forensic psychology and pursue a career in academia and practice.

Risk Assessment Protocol Crucial to Success of Juvenile Probationers

Risk Assessment Protocol Crucial to Success of Juvenile Probationers

Valid implementation of risk assessment and case management procedures improve resource allocation without interfering in youth’s lives or increasing the risk to public safety. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2016, Vol. 40, No. 6, 683-696

Risk Assessment Matters, But Only When Implemented Well: A multisite Study in Juvenile Probation


Gina M. Vincent, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Laura S. Guy, Simon Fraser University
Rachael T. Perrault, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Bernice Gershenson, University of Massachusetts Medical School


There is a strong movement toward juvenile justice agencies’ use of risk assessment and risk-need responsivity approaches to improve case management decisions for young offenders. However, little is known about whether adoption of risk assessment actually effectuates any changes in the way young offenders are handled. This was a multisite study of the impact on case processing of implementation of the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY) or Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory in 6 juvenile probation offices using a prepost design and 1,694 propensity score-matched young offenders. Consistent with the risk principle, there were significant changes to at least some areas of case processing in all but 1 site, most notably with respect to decreases in the amount of supervision youth received and in rates of out-of-home placement. The nature and extent of the impact varied as a function of sites’ characteristics and implementation quality, not as a function of the risk assessment used. No increases in recidivism were observed in any site, and there was a significant reduction in recidivism in 1 site. The key benefits of implementation of valid risk assessment and case management procedures were improved resource allocation and fewer instances of inappropriate interference in youths’ lives without an apparent increased risk to public safety.


SAVRY, YLS/CMI, implementation study, juvenile, RNR

Summary of the Research

“Considerable attention has been directed toward reforming juvenile justice over the past decade by integrating research evidence and principles of adolescent development into practice (National Research Council [NAS], 2013). One prominent recommendation for reform has been to base individual programming decisions on risk and criminogenic needs. The NAS (2013) strongly recommended structured risk and need assessment tools (RNAs) be used to identify low-risk youth who could be handled less formally, to match youth to appropriate treatment, and to target high-risk youth for more intensive interventions. Similarly, the Council of State Governments (Seigle, Walsh, & Weber, 2014) listed use of valid RNAs for supervision, service, and resource-allocation as one of the four core principles for reducing recidivism and improving outcomes for youth. Consequently, most states today have instituted a RNA in juvenile probation for use in case planning (Wachter, 2015). These recommendations stem from evidence that individualized case management models, such as risk-need-responsivity (RNR; Andrews & Bonta, 2003, 2010; Andrews, Bonta, & Hoge, 1990), are effective means for reducing recidivism whereas more global approaches toward punishment are not (e.g., Gatti, Tremblay, & Vitaro, 2009; Lipsey, 2009; Lipsey & Cullen, 2007; Loughran et al., 2009; MacKenzie, Wilson, & Kider, 2001; Petrosino, TurpinPetrosino, & Guckenburg, 2010)” (p. 683).

“Studies of probation officers (POs) have found that the actual use of RNAs in decision-making in the justice field is limited…Very few studies have examined actual changes that result in the handling of probation cases after implementation of a RNA” (p. 684).

“The current study focused on the impact of implementing the risk principle in these decisions, anticipating a decrease in use of restrictive monitoring and incarceration once a RNA and RNR practices were implemented. Specifically, we hypothesized decreases in rates of (a) more restrictive dispositions, (b) out-of-home placements, and (c) more intensive supervision levels. We also hypothesized that, in accordance with the risk principle, (d) restrictive dispositions, placements, and levels of supervision would be positively related to risk, and (e) high-risk youth would receive more services than lower risk youth. Lastly, we hypothesized that (f) reoffending would not increase after implementation of the RNA and RNR” (p. 685).

A pre-post, quasi-experimental design was utilized to collect data from 6 county probation offices and 1,694 propensity score-matched offenders. The sample included cases that met the criteria for a RNA to be implemented. Juvenile Probation Officers (JPOs) were trained in risk/need assessment and were told about the implementation procedures. Then, policies for risk/need assessments and case planning were created. Administrators tailored the case plans to be consistent with criminogenic needs identified on the RNA. Finally, JPOs were trained on the fundamentals of the RNR approach to treatment, and completed workshops on the YLS/CMI or SAVRY. Each JPO used information from the juvenile’s file and interviews with the juvenile, parent, and juvenile and parent together. Semi-structured interview scripts were given to JPOs who also administered the SAVRY or YLS/CMI. The study examined four dependent variables: most restrictive disposition, out of home placements, community supervision, number of service referrals, and recidivism.


“There was a significant shift toward less restrictive dispositions in four of the five sites. Risk level was associated with at least some, if not all, disposition decisions in each of these sites, indicating the risk principle was followed” (p. 693).

“As hypothesized, the risk principle influenced placement decisions in all five sites. On a positive note, most sites placed only 50 to 75% of their high-risk youth, suggesting the RNA and RNR training was effective in communicating that many of these youth could be managed safely in the community. A crucial takeaway is that the direction of the impact of the RNA differed as a function of each site’s placement rates before the RNA was used” (p. 693).

“The most consistent area of impact of implementation of a RNA was on level of probation supervision. In every site at which supervision level could be tested (with the exception of YLS/CMI Site 3) there were significant decreases in the use of maximum and moderate levels of supervision, and increases in the use of minimum levels of supervision…Most sites followed the risk principle in their service allocation such that high-risk youth on average received one to three more services than low-risk youth” (p. 693).

“Consistent with the hypotheses, in most sites rates of new petitions [rates of recidivism] did not change [except for site 1]… The stability in recidivism rates after implementation of a valid RNA and RNR approach may be a surprise and a disappointment. After all, the primary benefit of the RNR approach has been touted as recidivism reduction. However, most studies that have reported RNR leads to reductions in recidivism have demonstrated this at the macro level for services that address criminogenic needs (Dowden & Andrews, 1999; Romani, Morgan, Gross, & McDonald, 2012), for young offenders with strong service-to-need matching (Luong & Wormith, 2011; Peterson-Badali et al., 2015; Vieira et al., 2009), or in comparisons between POs with and without intensive training in RNR-related case management (Bonta et al., 2013, 2011). The present study differed in that it examined whether implementation of a valid RNA with RNR-related policies led to reductions in reoffending within a jurisdiction as a whole” (p.694).

Although it is important to implement the RNR approach in juvenile justice agencies, “we stress that focusing on recidivism as the most important or even sole outcome variable of interest when studying RNA implementation could be detrimental. Future studies should examine other outcomes such as reduction in agencies’ human and financial costs and improvement in youths’ educational attainment or employment” (p. 695).

Translating Research into Practice

“A major implication of this study is that quality implementation of risk assessment and RNR will conserve resources and serve more justice-involved youth in the community without an increased risk to public safety…Another implication of this work is that agencies must implement the RNA well to reap its benefits and avoid losses of time and other resources” (p. 694).

“A final implication is that the actual RNA instrument used should not matter as long as the tool is being completed reliably by staff and has been demonstrated to be a valid predictor of delinquent behavior for the type of population and setting where it is being used” (p. 694).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

The present study did not examine the quality of implementation of the need principle at any of the sites when measuring recidivism. Although the JPOs were trained, there was no standard assessment or evaluation for program delivery or management. Additionally, the authors speculated that sufficient time was not given to see any significant reductions in reoffending. “Good implementation of a new intervention can require 3 years, particularly before any benefits can be realized (Fixsen et al., 2005; Flores et al., 2006)” (p. 695). Finally, developing evaluations for all three stages of the RNR model during the time of implementation would allow future researchers to isolate both the efficient and inefficient aspects of the treatment.

Authored By Sarah Hartigan

Sara Hartigan is a second year Forensic Psychology Master’s student at John Jay and hope to obtain a Ph.D. in Clinical Forensic Psychology in the future. My main areas of interest include clinical evaluations and developing treatment interventions within the forensic population.