Youths’ first contact with the justice system may have an impact on their offending behavior and rearrests. 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. 2, 146-158
Is the Effect of Justice System Attitudes on Recidivism Stable After Youths’ First Arrest? Race and Legal Socialization Among First-Time Youth Offenders
Adam Fine University of California, Irvine
Caitlin Cavanagh Michigan State University
Sachiko Donley University of California, Irvine
Paul J. Frick Louisiana State University and Australian Catholic University
Laurence Steinberg Temple University and King Abdulaziz University
Elizabeth Cauffman University of California, Irvine
Youth who hold negative attitudes toward the justice system are more likely to engage in crime. It is particularly important to study attitudes early in someone’s criminal career when they may still be open to change. To date, however, there has been no empirical test assessing whether the relation between attitudes and behavior changes after a first arrest. Using a sample of 1,216 first-time, male, juvenile offenders from the Crossroads Study, the present study explored: (a) racial/ethnic differences in the longitudinal patterns of youths’ attitudes; and (b) reciprocal associations between youths’ attitudes and both their offending behavior and rearrests in the 2.5 years after their first arrest. The results indicated that White youths’ attitudes remained largely stable, Black youths’ attitudes became more negative, and Latino youths’ attitudes became more negative but only among Latino youth who reoffended. Although the results indicated that youths’ attitudes were related to both offending and rearrest, the bidirectional relation between attitudes and offending weakened across time. After 2.5 years after their first arrest, attitudes no longer predicted offending or rearrests. These novel findings suggest that a youth’s first contact is likely the most impactful. When it comes to young offenders’ interactions with the justice system, first impressions matter.
legal socialization, procedural justice, race, justice system legitimacy
Summary of the Research
“When individuals come into contact with a justice system that they perceive to be legitimate, they tend to obey the laws set forth by that system. Conversely, when individuals view the justice system as less legitimate, they may feel justified in breaking the law. Negative attitudes toward the legitimacy of the justice system are associated with higher rates of offending among adults and adolescents. However, it is not known whether the strength of the effect of a youth’s attitudes toward the justice system on his or her criminal offending changes in the years after the juvenile’s first contact with the justice system” (p. 146).
“During adolescence, the capacity to construct a coherent worldview develops, and attitudes both generally and specifically toward the legitimacy of the justice system are fluid. This normative, sociocognitive-developmental process, termed “legal socialization,” involves internalizing and evaluating a society’s rules and enforcement mechanisms. Like adults, youth base their legitimacy attitudes on the accrual of personal or vicarious experiences with the justice system. Legal socialization is an interactive construct; as youth observe or learn about the justice system, they develop a particular orientation toward the legitimacy of that system” (p. 147).
“As with adults, youths who negatively evaluate the justice system are more likely to engage in criminal offending, recidivating, and rule-violating, patterns that have been found in both community and delinquent samples. When youth who report low justice system legitimacy violate the law, they may induce a belief-enforcing response from legal actors, perpetuating a cycle of distrust and offending. Thus, determining how youths’ attitudes toward the justice system change over time may inform interventions to decrease youthful offending. In fact, recent evidence suggests that the association between procedural justice and cooperation with law enforcement may be even stronger among youth than adults” (p. 147).
“Research has consistently documented that non-White individuals have more negative attitudes toward the justice system than do White individuals. The same is true for justice system-involved youth, likely based on disparate justice system experiences. Relative to White youth, non-White youth may face greater community monitoring, disproportionately high justice system involvement, and harsher sanctions within the justice system. Non-White youth are also more likely to describe their interactions as unfair. Studies that dichotomize White versus non-White youths when examining differences in justice system attitudes may miss important nuances. There is evidence that Latinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, fall between Black and White youth, both in terms of the degree to which they are criminalized and attitudes toward the justice system. Indeed, Black and Latino youth consistently report more negative attitudes toward the police than White youth. Although the majority of this work has been on attitudes toward police specifically, there is evidence of similar trends in attitudes toward the justice system more broadly” (p. 147).
“However, few studies have tracked the development of justice system attitudes separately by race, and none has examined racial differences in the strength of the relation between attitudes and offending. The goal of the present study is to determine whether the effect of attitudes on offending behavior changes over the course of 2.5 years after youths’ first adjudication and whether there are racial/ethnic differences in this pattern of associations” (p. 146).
“The present study is the first to explore longitudinal, reciprocal associations between youths’ attitudes toward the justice system and offending after adolescents’ first personal justice system experience. Additionally, we build on previous research to chart racial/ethnic differences in these associations. First, we track attitude development over the 2.5 years after first arrest for Black, White, and Latino youth, separating trajectories for those who reoffend and those who do not. Second, we examine the longitudinal, reciprocal effects of attitudes on offending over time for the full sample, then individually by racial/ethnic group. Third, we track attitude development over time by race/ethnicity, separating trajectories for those who are rearrested and for those who are not rearrested. Finally, we track the reciprocal effects of attitudes on rearrest over time for the full sample then individually by racial/ ethnic group. If attitudes toward the justice system consistently affect youth behavior, we would expect that a youth’s negative attitude would affect his propensity to engage in crime and his likelihood of being rearrested regardless of how much time has passed since the youth entered the justice system. However, it is also possible that attitudes toward the justice system have the biggest impact immediately after the youth’s first exposure to the system. Thus, over time, youths’ attitudes toward the justice may habituate such that the effect of these attitudes on youth offending behavior weakens or disappears” (p. 148).
“The sample included 1,216 male juvenile offenders who were ages 13 to 17 (M 15.3, SD 1.3) at baseline from the Crossroads Study. Crossroads follows male adolescent offenders after their first official contact with the juvenile justice system. The youths had each been arrested for a range of non-felony offenses, with the most frequent charges including vandalism (17.5%), theft (16.7%), and possession of marijuana (14.8%). Youths were sampled from three sites: Philadelphia, PA (N 533); Jefferson Parish, LA (N 151); and Orange County, CA (N 532). Consistent with the overrepresentation of racial/ethnic minority youth in the juvenile justice system, the sample was racially diverse: Latino (46%), Black (37%), White (15%), and self-identified other (2%)” (p. 148).
“Youth completed an interview within 6 weeks after the disposition hearing for their first arrest, as well as follow-up interviews approximately 6, 12, 18, 24, and 30 months after their initial interview. Face-to-face interviews with the youth ranged from 2–3 hr and were documented using a secure computer-administered program. A Privacy Certificate issued by the Department of Justice protects participants’ privacy by exempting their identity and responses from subpoenas, court orders, or other types of involuntary disclosures” (p. 149). Participants also completed Tyler’s measure of justice system legitimacy and the Self-Report of Offending measure. Official arrest records for 30 months after the first arrest were also evaluated.
“Results of the present study suggest that there are race/ethnicity specific effects on the development of first time offenders’ attitudes toward the system and on the bidirectional relations between youths’ attitudes and both reoffending and rearrests. Consistent with previous research on felony-level juvenile offenders, we find that even after 2.5 years after their first arrest, White youths’ attitudes toward the system remain largely stable. We also find no evidence among White youth that the development of attitudes differed between youths who reoffended and those who did not, nor did they differ between youths who were rearrested and those who were not. In contrast, Black youths’ perceptions grew more negative over time, both among those who reoffended and among those who did not. However, this trend appears to be driven by Black youth who had been rearrested. Black youth who were rearrested developed more negative attitudes regarding the system, whereas the attitudes of Black youth who were not rearrested remained relatively stable. Finally, among Latino youth, we find that attitudes toward the system remain largely stable across the 2.5 years after first arrest, except among Latino youth who reported reoffending. Latinos who self-reported engaging in offending developed more negative attitudes regarding the system compared with Latino youths who did not self-report offending behaviors. These race/ethnicity-specific findings suggest that the development of attitudes toward the justice system after youths’ first arrest may involve different processes for youth of different races/ethnicities as a function of their reoffending and/or rearrest.” (p. 154).
“Among Black youth, at no point during the 2.5 years after their first arrest were their offending behaviors predictive of their subsequent attitudes toward the system. However, Black youths’ more negative attitudes toward the system were predictive of their offending behaviors for the first 18 months after their first arrest. Additionally, we found no evidence that Black youths’ rearrests predicted their attitudes or, consistent with prior research on adults, that their attitudes toward the system predicted their likelihood of being rearrested. That is, among Black youths, negative attitudes were associated with offending, but not necessarily with whether that youth would be arrested.” (p. 154).
“Among Latino youth, we find that youths who engaged in offending subsequently had more negative attitudes toward the system for the 12 months after their first arrest. Additionally, we found that Latino youths’ more negative attitudes toward the system predicted reoffending but only for the initial 6 months after their first arrest. Finally, we also found that Latino youths’ more negative attitudes toward the system predicted their likelihood of being rearrested for the first 6 months after their first arrest, however, at no point during the 2.5 years after their first arrest did their rearrests predict more negative attitudes toward the system. That is, for Latino youth, negative attitudes were associated with offending and the likelihood of being rearrested, but only for the first 6 months after their first arrest” (p. 155).
Translating Research into Practice
“One finding that was consistent across racial/ethnic groups is that the reciprocal associations between attitudes and offending, as well as between attitudes and rearrest, weaken across time. That is, within a 2.5 year time frame, we found evidence that the bidirectional effects of youths’ justice system attitudes and their offending behaviors or rearrests weaken across time. This finding suggests that youthful offenders may habituate or become used to interactions with the justice system” (p. 155).
“This study found that immediately after youths’ first arrests, youths’ attitudes regarding the legitimacy of the system are related to both their offending behaviors and their likelihood of being rearrested. However, this study also found that for all youth, after 2.5 years after their first arrest, attitudes are no longer predictive of offending behaviors or rearrests. One interpretation of the data is that the bidirectional effects of youths’ justice system attitudes and their offending behaviors or rearrests weaken across time. In line with this interpretation, perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this study would be that when it comes to young offenders’ interactions with the justice system, early impressions likely matter the most. Interactions with the justice system after this window may not shape youths’ attitudes toward the system above and beyond those they have already formulated. Justice system arbiters may thus be tempted to believe that their interactions with youths whose first contact with the system occurred more than 2 years ago are of no consequence. These youths have experienced habituation and their attitudes toward the system might be less predictive of their behaviors; thus, the way officials interact with and treat these youth is of no consequence for affecting their attitudes or behavior. We believe, however, that the second application of the current findings is more appropriate. Justice system arbiters can capitalize on this window immediately after youths’ first arrests by promoting, cultivating, and prioritizing fair interactions particularly because this first contact with the system may be the most influential and provide the foundation from which the youth’s attitudes develop. In this light, the current findings suggest a window of opportunity immediately after offenders’ first arrest during which justice system arbiters’ impressions on youth may be especially important and protective against subsequent offending. When it comes to young offenders’ interactions with the justice system, first impressions likely matter the most” (p. 156).
Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians
“Future work may consider, for example, whether our findings of habituation are similar for offenders whose first arrests happened at an earlier age, particularly considering attitudes toward the justice system may begin developing earlier during adolescence. Further, it is important to consider that offenders whose first arrests occur earlier in life are at particularly high risk of continuing offending. It is possible that youths who are first arrested at younger ages will continue to offend and continue to be at higher risk of being arrested, regardless of their attitudes toward the system. This is a possible alternate explanation for the observed habituation which requires further empirical testing. Also, although we followed youth after their first arrest, we were unable to prospectively examine the effect of the initial arrest. If early arrests are the most influential, future research should assess youths’ attitudes preceding their first arrest and track them prospectively.” (p. 156).
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Authored by Amanda Reed
Amanda L. Reed is a first year student in John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s clinical psychology doctoral 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.