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Juvenile court judges and their concerns about vunerability, experienced uncertainty and the law: Extralegal factors, legal considerations and judicial transfer decision-making.

Vargas, Jose H.
June 4, 2015

Source: (2014) Dissertation. Degree of Doctor of Philosophy inSocial Psychology. University of Nevada, Reno.

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 mockwaiver
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 uncertaintymanaging
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. (author’s abstract)


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