So is that juvenile offender a “wayward youth” or a “superpredator”?
The researchers writing this article believe they are the first to examine pre-existing stereotypes of the juvenile offender and how they relate to punishment decisions by jurors. The researchers identify two sub-types of juvenile offenders that many of us believe to be true: the wayward youth and the superpredator.
The wayward youth is essentially a good, albeit immature, adolescent who has strayed and should be rehabilitated rather than punished.
The superpredator is akin to the psychopath, is ruthless, lacks remorse, and deserves harsh punishment.
Three to twelve weeks prior to the experimental portion of today’s featured research, the participants completed a number of questionnaires including the Juvenile Offender Stereotype Scale, the JOSS. (See pages 53-54 for the JOSS scale items.)
Universities often ask undergraduates to complete a packet of research questionnaires for course credit but the undergraduates do not know if they will be selected for studies using the questionnaire or even if the completion of the questionnaire is all that is wanted by the researchers.
When this experiment was conducted, the researchers asked their participants to read a trial transcript and description of a 15 year old African-American boy “who robbed and shot an elderly victim, killing him for a small amount of money”. (The researchers say they made the Defendant African-American since this was the most common demographic among juvenile Defendants.) It was suggested by the Prosecutor in the transcript that Jamal (the Defendant) had completed the crime to obtain membership in a gang. Defense argued that Jamal was confused and had been intimidated and frightened by a senior gang member who had pressured Jamal into committing the crime. Jamal’s mother testified that Jamal did not like guns and that guns were not allowed in their home, (despite the fact that the gun had been found in their home). Jamal’s co-offender corroborated Jamal’s testimony that they had been pressured into committing the crime and said the senior gang member had planted the gun at Jamal’s home. In closing arguments, some jurors were given information that supported the Wayward Youth hypothesis, others were given information that supported the Superpredator hypothesis, and still others (the control group) were given closing statements that did not include either information about the wayward youth or the superpredator.
Here is what the researchers found:
On average, before the experiment, the participants tended to believe juvenile offenders were more likely wayward youths than superpredators.
Jurors were more likely to give a guilty murder verdict when their superpredator stereotypes were activated in the closing argument.
Juries in the wayward youth condition and the control condition did not differ. The researchers say this suggests our stereotypes are more in line with the wayward youth hypothesis.
So what this research says is that preexisting stereotypes and beliefs about the likely root of juvenile offending is likely to be overwhelmed by whatever stereotypes are activated at trial. Obviously, the Prosecution will want to paint a picture of the superpredator while the Defense will want to emphasize the wayward youth hypothesis.
Fear and empathy. They are flip sides of the same coin. If you do not have strong evidence for a wayward youth hypothesis (a kid that generates sympathy or identification as a troubled but essentially good kid), the fears of gangs, street violence, and vulnerability are likely to be activated. And if the case involves a violent crime, the fear of the superpredator is likely to win out.
Haegerich, TM, Salerno, JM, & Bottoms, BL (2013). Are the effects of juvenile offender stereotypes maximized or minimized by jury deliberation? Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 19 (1), 81-97 DOI: 10.1037/a0027808