Mothers’ Attitudes toward Justice System Influence Adolescent Probationary Success

Mothers’ Attitudes toward Justice System Influence Adolescent Probationary Success

Forensic-Training-AcademyMothers’ negative legitimacy attitudes toward the justice system indirectly predict increased youth 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.


ppplFeatured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law| 2015, Vol. 21, No. 4, 432-441


Viewing Law and Order: Mothers’ and Sons’ Justice System Legitimacy Attitudes and Juvenile Recidivism


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


Negative attitudes toward the justice system are associated with higher rates of reoffending, but there is little information about how these negative attitudes are formed among youth. Despite the well-documented link between parents’ and children’s attitudes in other domains, no research has explored how parents’ attitudes toward the justice system may be associated with youth attitudes. The relation between youth and mother justice system legitimacy attitudes, and the effect these attitudes have on juvenile offenders’ reoffending behavior, was examined using structural equation modeling. Mothers and their sons (N = 315 pairs, 630 total) were interviewed after the son’s first arrest and again 12 months later. Results indicate that sons’ attitudes (directly) and mothers’ attitudes (indirectly) predicted increased youth self-reported reoffending 12 months after the first offense. Furthermore, mothers’ attitudes indirectly predicted youth official rearrests 12 months after the first offense. No racial differences were found. These findings provide evidence that mothers socialize youth attitudes toward the justice system, and suggest that family context may influence youth probationary success. When designing both legislation and interventions, practitioners and policymakers must keep in mind the broader family context in which youth offenders are embedded.


juvenile justice, legal socialization, procedural justice, developmental psychology, parenting

Summary of the Research

“Attitudes toward the legitimacy of the justice system describe the degree to which one views legal entities and processes as valid, effective, and fair. A negative attitude toward the justice system implies that one considers the justice system to be an invalid or unjust institution. As citizens view the justice system as less legitimate, they may feel justified in breaking the law. Thus, it is not surprising that more negative attitudes toward the justice system are associated with higher rates of offending. Importantly, as with adults, negative attitudes toward the justice system have been associated with higher rates of offending among adolescents. For this reason, it is important to evaluate the mechanism through which adolescents develop attitudes toward the justice system as one means of reducing juvenile offending. A likely, yet unexplored, mechanism of youth legal socialization is a youth’s parents. The family context is highly salient to youths’ general attitude socialization. A wealth of developmental psychological literature indicates that parents’ attitudes often shape those of their children across a diverse array of domains. To date, however, it is unknown whether parents socialize attitudes about the justice system to their children. The present study integrates criminological and psychological theory to explore how parents’ attitudes, toward justice system legitimacy are associated with youth justice system attitudes, and how each affect youth reoffending behavior” (p. 432).

“Youth base their legitimacy attitudes on the accrual of personal or vicarious experiences. Thus, a youth’s context (attitudes and factual experiences of family, peers, and the neighborhood) is particularly influential in informing the youth’s conception of justice system legitimacy. There is evidence that youth views toward justice system legitimacy are associated with juvenile offending, recidivating, and rule-violating behavior in both delinquent samples and in community samples. When youths low in justice system legitimacy violate the law, they may induce a belief-enforcing response from legal actors, perpetuating a cycle of distrust and offending” (p.433).

“There is evidence that youths adopt parents’ (particularly mothers’) attitudes toward antisocial behavior, risk-taking, and violence. Much of the present research on the intergenerational transmission of attitudes is limited in that studies only report the parents’ attitudes as perceived by the adolescent. Few studies have measured both the parents’ and the youths’ attitudes simultaneously. In addition, no research has been conducted on parents’ justice system legitimacy attitudes (trust of the justice system) may relate to youth legitimacy attitudes. The present study addressed both of these gaps through a dual-reporter study of the transmission of justice system legitimacy attitudes from parent to child. If parents do influence their children’s attitudes toward the justice system, adolescent offenders may adopt their parents’ low legitimacy attitudes, leading these youths to persist in lawbreaking behaviors” (pp. 433-434).

“The goal of the present study was to examine the relation between parents’ and youths’ justice system legitimacy attitudes and juvenile offending among a sample of 315 first-time male juvenile offenders and their 315 mothers/female guardians. We expected that mothers would socialize their sons’ justice system legitimacy attitudes. In addition, according to the criminological procedural justice literature, which has consistently demonstrated a link between low legitimacy attitudes and reoffending, we expected that sons with lower justice system legitimacy attitudes would report more reoffending 12 months after their first arrest. In other words, we expected that mothers would socialize their sons’ attitudes toward the justice system, which would in turn affect reoffending” (p.434).

“The results of the present analyses indicate that both sons’ and, indirectly, mothers’ low feelings of justice system legitimacy predict increased youth reoffending 1 year after their first arrest “(p.437). “These results expand on the wealth of parent–adolescent attitude socialization literature by being the first to examine justice system legitimacy attitudes. In particular, our findings that official arrests are indirectly affected by mothers’ attitudes, above and beyond youths’ attitudes, mirrors previous findings that a parent’s attitude about aggression, more than an adolescent’s own attitude about aggression, may predict the adolescent’s actual aggression” (p.438).

Translating Research into Practice

“The present study has implications for juvenile justice policy in terms of improving the way that the justice system works with families. Legitimacy attitudes within families may affect youth reoffending after a first arrest. However, many parents in high-crime areas may be justified in feeling that the justice system treats their families harshly or unfairly. In areas where crime is high, the response is often aggressive policing and greater use of force, leading law-abiding residents within such neighborhoods to feel overpoliced. Similarly, minority families may feel unfairly targeted by justice system actors through racial profiling and justice system nonresponse to reported crimes in their neighborhoods. In such situations, some may feel that the only logical attitude to have is one that discounts legal actors as illegitimate” (p.439).

“Given that it is the perceived fairness of the procedure that is hypothesized to inform justice system legitimacy, practitioners (e.g., police, judges, and probation officers) are encouraged to work openly and respectfully with families of juvenile offenders. A youth’s first arrest (e.g., his first personal experience with the juvenile justice system) is a prime opportunity to start tabula rasa with justice system legitimacy attitudes. A sense that their son’s case was handled fairly, from arrest to probation, may ameliorate both a mother’s and a son’s view that the justice system is not legitimate” (p.439).

“Perhaps the most important finding from the present study is that the family context may influence youth reoffending behavior by playing a role in setting the lens through which the youth views the justice system. In designing legislation and interventions, we must keep in mind the broader context in which youth offenders are embedded. Particularly, it is important to consider how the goals of parents of justice system-involved youths may differ from the goals of law enforcement or interventionists. If it is assumed that parents hold the justice system in positive regard when designing youth probationary or rehabilitative programs, the most high-risk population (those who do not feel the justice system is legitimate and thus are likely to have reoffending sons) will not be served” (p.439).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Although the present study was not developed to examine the effect of race on families’ attitudes toward the justice system, we did find a direct effect of race on mothers’ perceptions of the justice system, but no interaction between race and legitimacy attitudes on youth reoffending behavior. The relation between race and justice system attitudes should be explored in future research” (p.438).

Join the Discussion

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

Megan BanfordAuthored by Megan Banford

Megan Banford is a master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College. She graduated in 2013 from Simon Fraser University with a B.A. (Honors) and hopes complete a PhD in clinical forensic psychology. Her main research interests include violence risk assessment and management, juvenile offenders and public policy.

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