Juvenile Court Judges and their Concerns about Vulnerability, Experienced Uncertainty and the Law: Extralegal Factors, Legal Considerations and Judicial Transfer Decision-making
AuthorVargas, Jose Hugo
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In American juvenile law, the judicial transfer decision, or waiver of jurisdiction, is a legal maneuver by which young offenders are diverted away from the juvenile justice system and subsequently processed and adjudicated within adult systems of law. Although transfer decisions have a long history in modern American jurisprudence, social science has largely neglected to perform a comprehensive inquiry of the social psychological underpinnings of judicial waivers. The extant social psycholegal research hints to potential links between transfer decision-making and three categories of variables: (a) terror management and social information-processing, (b) uncertainty management and attributional reasoning, and (c) statutory and nonstatutory sources of influence. Two social theories (i.e., the dual-process theory of proximal/distal defenses and uncertainty avoidance/causal attribution theory), as well as the literature on judicial waivers, provided three alternative predictions about the nature of the transfer decision-making process. The first theory predicts that implicit mortality salience (MS) cues activate the experiential system, including terror-reducing distal defenses. The processing of vulnerability cues by legal decision-makers could undermine their inferences about a given case and encourage biased decision-making via extralegal analysis. The second theory presumes that the social context of legal decision-making is inherently inexact or uncertain. To the extent that cases are perceived as ambiguous, legal decision-makers could be prompted to apply attributional reasoning styles designed to manage uncertainty, manage crime and improve the likelihood of identifying satisfactory decision-making outcomes. Finally, in contrast to both social theories, research purports that transfer decisions emerge from a reconciliatory-type process which differentially weighs a wide array of statutory and nonstatutory sources of influence. In order to examine the three variable-categories within the context of an ambiguous waiver of jurisdiction hearing, a two-part experimental approach was adopted. Most legal decision-making studies that have applied terror management theory have relied on traditional mortality salience (MS) induction methodologies (e.g., death essays) without consideration of natural "social ecologies" wherein MS processes occur. Study 1, a simple four-group experiment with 192 college student participants, compared the impact of traditional MS cues (i.e., death essays) versus ecological MS cues (i.e., death-laden prosecutorial statements) on mock-juror behavior. In Study 2, a mock-waiver hearing vignette was embedded in an experimental-based survey. Sixty-four juvenile court judges provided data regarding the relations between ecological MS induction, social information-processing mode, uncertainty management, attributional reasoning orientation, legal considerations (e.g., the Kent Guidelines), extralegal factors (e.g., punishment attitudes) and judicial transfers. In Studies 1 and 2, the Smith-Cribbie-Bonferroni adjusted partial least squares structural equation modeling (PLS-SEM) estimator was applied for all central statistical analyses. Findings from both studies indicate that legal decision-making is not affected by vulnerability concerns. Study 1 also failed to uncover evidence that the traditional and ecological MS cues were similar (compared to control conditions) in their effects on mock-juror decision making, calling into question certain assumptions about the methods commonly used in legal-related terror management studies. Finally, data from Study 2 do not support the contention that uncertainty-managing attributional processes were active during the transfer decision-making process. Instead, waiver decisions appear to emerge out of complex interactions involving particular legal and extralegal sources of influence. These sources of influence include global and specified retributive and deterrent-based attitudes, the degree of legal experience, the perceived utility of specific Kent Guidelines and perceptions toward both the prosecution and juvenile offender. The closing chapter reviews the limitations and implications of the entire investigation.