Teens who face the juvenile justice system for the first time are more likely to re-offend if their mothers don’t participate in their legal process, according to a new study led by a Michigan State University (MSU) criminologist.
The findings reveal an urgent need for more legal education for parents, so they can play an active and supportive role in the process, and ultimately keep their children out of future trouble.
The researchers liken the situation to parents supporting their children in school, which is only possible if the parents know what their kids are learning and studying. And unfortunately, since most mothers are widely unfamiliar with the juvenile justice system, they are less likely to be active participants in the process.
“Just as there are ways for parents to help in academic contexts, there are ways for parents to help in the legal contexts, insomuch that they know what to do,” said study leader Dr. Caitlin Cavanagh, assistant professor in MSU’s School of Criminal Justice. “Our results point to some pretty clear implications, which is that we need to educate parents about the juvenile justice system — about their rights, roles, and responsibilities.”
For the study, Cavanagh and Dr. Elizabeth Cauffman from the University of California, Irvine, studied the cases of 324 boys aged 13 to 17 who were charged for the first time with low to moderately serious offenses such as vandalism, theft and assault. The study followed up with the teens a year later to see if they had re-offended.
Mothers of the teen offenders filled out questionnaires regarding their knowledge of and participation in the juvenile justice system. The researchers elected to sample only female guardians because mothers of juvenile offenders are more likely than fathers to be present in their children’s lives; indeed, nearly 85 percent of youth in the study listed a female as their primary guardian.
The findings show that on average, mothers who took the 44-item questionnaire about the juvenile justice system answered only 66 percent of the questions correctly. There was a direct correlation between ignorance and lack of participation, as moms who were less knowledgeable about the system were significantly less likely to participate in the legal process.
In addition, the teens were significantly more likely to commit another crime if their mothers didn’t participate in their legal proceedings.
“When you think about a 14-year-old boy who is arrested and charged, he can’t drive himself to the many hearings and court dates he needs to attend. He’s also not old enough to have a legal job, so he can’t afford the fees and fines he may have to pay,” Cavanagh said.
“So these youth are literally dependent on their parents, not just for emotional support or guidance, which is important, but simply to complete the requirements of their probation.”
The main goal of the juvenile justice system, the study notes, is rehabilitation — to keep youth from re-offending and ultimately ending up in the criminal justice system as adults.
“Juvenile offenders are at a critical point in their life where they need to finish their education and start thinking about careers. I would say that adolescence, even more so than adulthood, is a really important time to keep youth away from crime,” Cavanagh said.
“If parental involvement can help them stay on the right path, that can have lasting repercussions down the road.”
The study is published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law.
Source: Michigan State University