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Parental Guidance: The Role of Family in Youth Re-Offending


In order to understand how youth desist from crime after their first arrest, it is necessary to investigate their primary support system: their parents. This dissertation examined the reciprocal effects of justice system contact on the mother-child dyad from an ecological perspective. Interviews with 282 mothers and their sons, first-time offenders, were conducted semiannually over two and a half years, and group trajectory modeling was employed. Results revealed that a high quality initial mother-son relationship reduces youth re-offending over time. Furthermore, as mothers perceived that theirs sons were offending more, they reported less warmth and more hostility in their relationships with their sons two and a half years later. Additionally, mothers’ attitudes toward police informed youths’ attitudes over time, above and beyond the effect of re-arrests.

Youth age and Latino cultural factors emerged as moderators. First, older youth were particularly protected from reoffending by warm maternal relationships, and decreases in relationship warmth associated with re-offending were steeper for younger youth. Second, Latino families experienced a sharper decrease in warmth in response to mother’s perception of youth offending as compared to non-Latino families. Likewise, undocumented mothers became more cynical toward the justice system than documented mothers when their sons were re-arrested.

Notably, mothers expressed more legal cynicism when their sons had been re-arrested compared to those whose sons had not been re-arrested, but re-arrests did not affect the quality of the mother-son relationship. Rather, mothers who felt that their sons were treated unjustly perceived additional arrests to be the fault of an unfair system rather than their child’s behavior. When mothers perceived that the system acted in a just manner, youth reoffending behavior (either perceived by the mother or an actual re-arrest) was seen as a failure on the son’s part, not the system’s, leading to reduced warmth. These results highlight the importance of a fair procedure in juvenile justice contacts, particularly when families initiate their first justice system experience. The repercussions of fair treatment during the first arrest endure long after the arrest, and affect multiple areas of functioning within the family.

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