Mother Knows Best.... When She is Legally Informed

Pretend that your favorite juvenile (child, other relative, friend) were arrested, would you know how to help them navigate the juvenile justice system? Unlike the criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system operates with the primary goal of rehabilitation, and therefore often has substantially different rules. Without experience or knowledge, however, the system can be difficult to navigate. One factor that you may think influences your ability to navigate the system is your own experience within it.


Cavanaugh, Paruk & Cauffman (2020) examined how a mother’s knowledge of the system influenced their children’s outcomes in Mothers’ Legal Knowledge and Juvenile Arrests. The researchers examined differences across racial, economic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The researchers found that juveniles were less likely to reoffend when they had mothers who better understood the juvenile justice system. However, experience with the system alone did not lead to better understanding. Rather, the mother’s education was more important. These findings are particularly concerning as youth of color or from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to have parents who struggle to understand or navigate the juvenile justice system.


This study highlights how important it is to provide training to families entering the juvenile justice system. Since juveniles are less likely to reoffend when their parents have better knowledge of the juvenile justice system, the system should take more steps to educate parents to reduce offending. Lawyers alone are not sufficient, as the P.I. of the Legal Decision Lab (Dr. Reed) has found, as juveniles often do not understand their legal rights after talking to their attorneys. Therefore, the system needs to take steps to make sure that parents and kids understand how to navigate the system in order to both improve their experiences within and to prevent them from re-entering the juvenile justice system.

Cavanagh, C. et al (2020). Lesson Learned? Mother’s Legal Knowledge and Juvenile Rearrests. American Psychological Association. 44(2), 157-166.

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