Do callous–unemotional traits moderate the effects of the juvenile justice system on later offending behavior? [2020]

Research suggests that callous–unemotional (CU) traits, a recent addition to psychiatric classification of serious conduct problems, may moderate the influence of a number of contextual factors (e.g., parenting, deviant peer influence) on an adolescent’s adjustment. The current study sought to replicate past research showing that formal processing through the juvenile justice system increases recidivism and tested the novel hypothesis that CU traits would moderate the relationship between processing decision and future antisocial behavior.

A diverse sample of first‐time male offenders (N = 1,216; M age = 15.12, SD = 1.29) in three regions of the United States was assessed within 6 weeks of their first arrest and then at 6‐month intervals for 36 months.

Compared to those who were informally processed (i.e., diverted), adolescents formally processed through the court were at a higher risk of self‐reported offending and rearrests as measured by official records, after controlling for preexisting risk factors. However, baseline CU traits moderated this association such that those with high CU traits reported offending at high rates across the subsequent three years regardless of how the juvenile justice system processed their case.

CU traits are important to psychiatric classification for designating a subgroup of antisocial youth who may respond differently to contextual influences, including being less susceptible to the negative effects of juvenile justice system involvement. The public health significance of this moderation is significant by suggesting that previous estimates of the harmful impact of formal processing by the juvenile justice system may underestimate its impact, given that the majority of arrested adolescents have normative levels of CU traits.

Emily L. Robertson Paul J. Frick James V. Ray Laura C. Thornton Tina D. Wall Myers Laurence Steinberg Elizabeth Cauffman
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 25 May 2020