Legal Socialization and Juvenile Offenders

Thursday, January 15, 2015
Bissonet, Third Floor (New Orleans Marriott)
* noted as presenting author
Jeffrey Shook, PhD, JD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Sara Goodkind, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Socio-legal scholars have long been interested in the concept of legal socialization, the process through which individuals acquire attitudes about the law and legal system. Legal socialization consists of an individual’s attitudes toward the legal system (referred to as legitimacy), the law (legal cynicism), and moral codes that guide behavior (moral disengagement). Several scholars have focused their attention on the legal socialization of young people. In particular, a number of recent studies have found that legal socialization is shaped during adolescence and that these attitudes are influenced by perceptions of fairness of interactions with authority figures and are important because they are related to delinquent behavior (Fagan & Tyler, 2005).   

This paper adds to this body of research by examining the relationships among procedural justice, legal socialization, and delinquent behavior among a sample of adjudicated juveniles in residential facilities in Western Pennsylvania (N=227). Following the theoretical framework proposed by Fagan and Tyler (2005), the analysis proceeds in two steps. First, a series of linear regression models are run on both the overall legal socialization measure and its individual components –  legitimacy, legal cynicism, and moral disengagement –  in order to examine the relationship between a measure of procedural justice (the perceived fairness of the police, judge, and defense attorney in the youth’s case) and legal socialization while accounting for other factors. Second, two additional regression models are run examining the relationship between the individual components and overall measure of legal socialization on self-reports of delinquent behavior.

For the first set of models, results indicate that procedural justice is related to the overall measure of legal socialization and each of its individual components (p<.05). These results show that youth who perceive their experiences as being less fair have more negative attitudes about the law, legal system, and moral rules and codes. In the second set of models, the legitimacy and moral disengagement components and overall measure of legal socialization are related to higher levels of delinquent behavior (p<.05) indicating that youth with more negative views of the legal system and moral codes participate in more delinquent behavior.

These findings are important for several reasons. First, they replicate Fagan and Tyler’s (2005) findings regarding the relationship between procedural justice, legal socialization, and delinquent behavior among a sample of youth with involvement in the juvenile justice system. Given that the vast majority of youth in the sample had significant histories of delinquent behavior, this finding is notable. Second, the perceived legitimacy of the legal system was related to self-reported delinquent behavior. As noted, most of the youth in our sample had significant histories of arrests and involvement in the system prior to being committed to the residential facility in which they were placed at the time of the interview. This suggests that a youth’s perception of the legitimacy of the system might influence their willingness to comply with the system.

Fagan, J., & Tyler, T. (2005). Legal socialization of children and adolescents. Social Justice Research, 18, 217–242.