Adolescents’ Legal Socialization

Published date01 October 2017
Date01 October 2017
Subject MatterArticles
YVJ651479 419..440 Article
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
2017, Vol. 15(4) 419-440
Adolescents’ Legal Socialization:
ª The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
Effects of Interrogation
DOI: 10.1177/1541204016651479
and Miranda Knowledge
on Legitimacy, Cynicism,
and Procedural Justice
Sarah Vidal1, Hayley Cleary2, Jennifer Woolard3,
and Jaime Michel4
This study examined how detained youths’ (N ¼ 98) actual experiences with the law, including
frequency of contact with the police and knowledge about the Miranda warning and interrogation
practices, relate to their perceptions of support, fairness, and trust toward the police. Results show
that more police contacts were associated with lower perceived obligation to obey the law and
higher cynicism toward the law and also moderated the relationships between age and police legiti-
macy and race/ethnicity and police legitimacy and procedural justice. Comprehension of the Miranda
warning was associated with lower perceived obligation to obey the law and procedural justice, and
knowledge about police interrogation practices was associated with lower perceived police legitimacy.
These findings suggest the potential of legal socialization as a mechanism for intervention among
offending adolescents; programs that promote positive youth–police interactions may help minimize
negative attitudes and foster perceptions of trust and fairness toward the police.
adolescents, legal socialization, procedural justice, Miranda, police interrogation
Legal socialization describes the process by which individuals develop their orientation, beliefs, and
attitudes toward the legal system (Fagan & Tyler, 2005; Piquero, Fagan, Mulvey, Steinberg, &
Odgers, 2005). This process is shaped by direct or indirect encounters with the courts, police, and
other actors within the legal system (Fagan & Tyler, 2005). Studies on legal socialization have
1 Division of Prevention and Community Research, Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine,
New Haven, CT, USA
2 L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA
3 Department of Psychology, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA
4 East Bay Children’s Law Offices, Oakland, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sarah Vidal, Division of Prevention and Community Research, Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine,
389 Whitney Ave., New Haven, CT 06511, USA.

Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 15(4)
largely focused on its association with behavioral outcomes such as (re)offending or rule-violating
behaviors (Cohn, Trinkner, Rebellon, Van Gundy, & Cole, 2012; Penner, Viljoen, Douglas, &
Roesch, 2014; Reisig, Wolfe, & Holtfretter, 2011; Trinkner & Cohn, 2014). These studies suggest
that legal socialization plays a critical role in how individuals respond to and perceive legal author-
ities or institutions, which, in turn, may help promote cooperation and compliance with the law
(Tyler, 1990). Little research, however, exists on whether individuals’ actual experiences with the
legal system influence their perceptions and attitudes toward the law. Moreover, no research has
examined whether one’s understanding and knowledge of legal processes and practices influence
their own perceptions of legal socialization. The extent to which individuals know and understand
legal processes and practices may have important implications for how they perceive and respond to
the law. In this study, we addressed this gap in the literature by exploring how frequency of police
contact and understanding of Miranda warnings and police interrogation practices influence offend-
ing youths’ perceptions and attitudes toward the law.
Legal Socialization in Adolescence
Adolescence is a critical period of development for forming and understanding perceptions and
attitudes toward various institutions and societal norms and values (Fagan & Tyler, 2005). Adoles-
cents are more attuned to their surroundings and are especially responsive to social stimuli (Choudh-
ury, Blakemore, & Charman, 2006; Steinberg, 2008). They increasingly expect more autonomy,
voice, and participation in decisions in various social contexts. As such, their own experiences with
the law coupled with their vicarious encounters with the law through family, neighborhood, and
other social institutions are critical influences to their socialization toward the legal system (Cava-
nagh & Cauffman, 2015; Fagan & Tyler, 2005). Research demonstrates that perceptions and atti-
tudes toward the law in early adolescence are highly stable through late adolescence (Piquero et al.,
2005) and form the basis of an individual’s long-term orientation toward authority (Lind & Tyler,
1988). Thus, attitudes and beliefs toward the law that evolve during adolescence may not only shape
adolescents’ response and behavior in various legal contexts but also promote broader and lasting
orientation toward law.
Although research on legal socialization in adolescence is limited, there is evidence to suggest
that legal socialization shapes and influences an individual’s development of his or her notions of the
law and behaviors through perceptions of institutional legitimacy and legal cynicism (Fagan &
Tyler, 2005; Piquero et al., 2005). Institutional legitimacy refers to perceptions of support and trust
in the authority of a legal institution or a legal figure such as the police. It describes the extent to
which individuals feel compelled to obey the law even when it does not serve their interests (Fagan
& Tyler, 2005). On the other hand, legal cynicism describes an individual’s values about the
normative basis of the law or the ‘‘ratification of [behaviors] in ways that are ‘outside’ of law and
social norms’’ (Sampson & Bartusch, 1998, p. 786). It reflects the extent to which an individual
believes that in certain situations it is justifiable to break the law (Fagan & Tyler, 2005).
Adolescents’ perceptions of legitimacy and cynicism have primarily been studied in the context
of their perceptions of the police (Brown & Benedict, 2002; Cavanagh & Cauffman, 2015; Fagan &
Tyler, 2005). Generally, a youth’s first direct and, at times, only contact with the legal system is with
the police. This initial contact may help form and shape attitudes not only toward the police but also
toward the law generally. The extent to which adolescents perceive legitimacy of and cynicism
toward legal actors may influence their cooperation and compliance with legal authorities. For
example, in a study of 144 high school students in Australia, Hinds (2009) found that youths’
perceptions of police legitimacy were positively related to their willingness to assist the police.
In a community sample of 215 children and youth ages 10–16 years, Fagan and Tyler (2005)
reported that perceptions of legitimacy, but not cynicism, were significantly associated with fewer

Vidal et al.
counts of self-reported delinquency even after controlling for important risk factors such as asso-
ciation with deviant peers, exposure to violence, aggression, impulsivity, neighborhood character-
istics, and parental supervision. Other studies also involving community samples of youth, however,
have demonstrated that cynicism was linked to greater counts of rule-violating behaviors (Cohn
et al., 2012; Trinkner & Cohn, 2014). Together, these findings suggest the critical role of positive
legal socialization during adolescence in shaping attitudes and compliance with the law.
Research on legal socialization is also complemented by the notion of procedural justice, which
posits that perceived trust and fairness toward the legal system, including its actors, relate to positive
case outcomes (Fagan & Tyler, 2005; Tyler, 1990). Procedural justice research with offending youth
indicates that perceived fairness in interaction with legal authorities engenders respect and support
for the law, which is associated with lower rates of delinquent behavior (Fagan & Tyler, 2005;
Penner et al., 2014; Tatar, Kaasa, & Cauffman, 2012). Thus, procedural justice may help promote
perceptions of legitimacy, attenuate cynicism toward the law, and encourage cooperation and
compliance with legal authorities.
Predictors of Legal Socialization
It is important to examine the effects of legal socialization in the context of various individual
characteristics including race, gender, and age. For example, members of ethnic and racial minority
groups hold less favorable attitudes and perceptions toward the law than Whites (Piquero et al.,
2005; Woolard, Harvell, & Graham, 2008). In a study of 1,393 adolescents and young adults from
the community and the juvenile and criminal justice systems, Woolard, Harvell, and Graham (2008)
examined perceptions of anticipatory injustice of the legal system. They found that African Amer-
ican and Latino youth had significantly higher anticipations of injustice than White youth. Although
youth with more justice system experience had the highest ratings of anticipatory injustice, racial
and ethnic differences in perceptions of anticipatory injustice were notable even among youth with
no justice system experience. Perceptions of anticipatory injustice by even youth with no justice
system experience are consistent with well-documented ethnic and racial disparities present at
various decision-making points in the juvenile justice system (Bishop, Leiber, & Johnson, 2010;
Kempf-Leonard, 2007).
Research on...

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