Parents' involvement in youth justice proceedings: perspectives of youth and parents


The passing of the Young Offenders Act (YOA) in 1984 marked the beginning of a new era in the Canadian youth justice system. Shifting from the child welfare emphasis of the Juvenile Delinquents Act (S.C. 1908; R.S.C. 1970), the YOA was characterized by a rights and responsibilities orientation intended to "balance the needs of young offenders with youth accountability and public protection" (Hylton, 1994, p. 235). The Act stated that "young people who commit offences require supervision, discipline, and control, but, because of their state of dependency and level of development and maturity, they also have special needs and require guidance and assistance" (Young Offenders Act, R.S.C. 1985). Parents were viewed as playing a key role in providing this additional protection and support. A continued focus on the role of parents is evident in the recently implemented Youth Criminal Justice Act (S.C. 2002), though this legislation has made a much clearer break from a child welfare orientation than its predecessor. Young people continue to have the right to consult with a parent prior to police questioning and authorities have a duty to notify a parent of a child's detention and of court proceedings or extrajudicial measures. The Act also addresses parents' socialization function in their children's development, stating that "measures taken against young persons who commit offences should…where appropriate, involve parents, [and] the extended family" (YCJA, 2002, s. 3(1)(c)(iii)).

The youth justice policy perspective that young people are not yet fully mature is supported by research on young people's culpability, ability to meaningfully participate in criminal proceedings, and other legally relevant capacities. Studies indicate that juveniles' understanding of legal issues is quite variable across concepts and that many adolescents lack sufficient understanding of their legal rights and demonstrate misconceptions about important aspects of legal proceedings (Abramovitch, Higgins-Biss, & Biss,1993; Grisso, 1981; Grisso, Steinberg, Woolard, Cauffman, Scott, Graham, Lexcen, Reppucci, & Schwartz, 2003; Peterson-Badali & Abramovitch, 1992, 1993; Peterson-Badali & Koegl, 1998). Similarly, a number of studies (e.g., Abramovitch, Peterson-Badali & Rohan, 1995; Abramovitch et al., 1993; Grisso, 1981; Grisso et al., 2003) have found that, relative to adults, many adolescents show deficits in understanding and appreciation of due process rights. Such deficits may be related to the fact that many young people waive rights to silence and legal counsel prior to police interrogation (e.g., Abramovitch et al.,1993; Peterson-Badali, Koegl & Ruck, 1999). Viljoen, Roesch and Zapf (2002, p. 482) argue that "given that confessions lead to convictions, and because most accused do not have a lawyer at this point, competence to waive interrogation rights is critical."

Inadequate legal understanding is not the only cause of impairments in legal decision-making. Researchers have suggested that adolescent decision-making is impaired by psychosocial immaturity even when cognitive processing appears to be sufficiently developed (Cauffman & Steinberg, 2000; Scott, Reppucci & Woolard, 1995; Steinberg & Cauffman, 1996). Scott, Reppucci and Woolard (1995) propose that juveniles' legal decision making is impacted by factors such as compliance with peers and parents, attitude toward and perception of risk, temporal perspective, and obedience to authority. With respect to the latter, there is evidence that juveniles' greater vulnerability to coercion puts them at risk for making false statements or confessing to crimes they did not commit (Dixon, Bottomley, Coleman, Gill, & Wall, 1990; Gudjonsson & MacKeith, 1990; Richardson, Gudjonsson & Kelly, 1995). In sum, there is an accumulation of evidence that many young people require extra protection and guidance if their participation in the youth justice system is to be meaningful. However, there is virtually no research on whether parents actually fill this role.

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