Victim Awareness Programs for Delinquent Youths: Effects on Moral Reasoning Maturity

Article excerpt

During the last decade a number of programs for offenders have incorporated educational components aimed at enhancing participants' understanding of the experiences of victims of crime. For example, some sex-offender programs have victims give accounts of their experiences and the effects that the assaults have had on their lives (e.g., Freeman-Longo & Wall, 1986). A program in the United Kingdom at the Rochester Youth Custody Centre organized discussion meetings between young offenders and burglary victims (Launay, 1985; Launay & Murray, 1989), while Impact of Crime on Victims classes are regularly run for juvenile delinquents by the California Youth Authority (English & Crawford, 1989). Collectively, these can be referred to as Victim Awareness Programs (VAPs). These are not victim/offender mediation programs-none involve the offenders' own victims. They aim to increase offenders' awareness about crime victims in the hope that this will reduce the risk of reoffending. In essence, these programs strive to influence offenders' sociocognitive functioning in ways that will decrease the likelihood of antisocial behavior.

Delinquents are typically deficient in a number of sociocognitive skills (Arbuthnot, Gordon, & Jurkovic, 1987). Among these are reduced reflectiveness (this includes a lack of forethought regarding consequences); poorer empathic ability (particularly of affective empathy, though accurate cognitive empathy also plays an important role as a necessary precursor of appropriate affective empathy); immature sociomoral reasoning (a narrow worldview that fails to adequately encompass the perspectives and experiences of, and relationships with, others); and distorted thinking that employs neutralization strategies to either deny or minimize the real harm done to others (e.g., "Their insurance will cover it"). At the heart of VAPs is an attempt to get participants to think about victims using accurate and credible information. Arguments could be made as to how VAPs might influence any or all of the areas of sociocognitive functioning mentioned above. They are all to some degree interrelated and all influence cognitions about victims.

Despite the intuitive appeal and obvious content validity of VAPs, little research has been carried out regarding the effectiveness of these programs. In evaluating the Focussing on Victims Program for young offenders in the Netherlands, Groenhuijsen and Winkel (1991) found changes in participants' perceptions of the overall seriousness and adverse consequences of various crimes, and increases in victimization awareness. They concluded that "the program actually stimulates internal inhibition, and might thus contribute to reducing or preventing future offending." Launay and Murray (1989), in their assessment of the program at the Rochester Youth Custody Centre in the United Kingdom, found that following the program, offenders "rate victims more positively . . . and are then better at predicting both the attitude of victims towards burglars, and the impact of a burglary on its victim."

While participation in VAPs by juvenile offenders has been associated with positive changes in their knowledge and attitudes, the outcome measures used have been very closely related to the programs' contents and might not tap more general sociocognitive processes. The aim of the present study was to examine whether attending VAPs had any demonstrable effect on one of these sociocognitive processes, namely sociomoral reasoning maturity.

METHOD

Subjects

The treatment group consisted of delinquents attending three separate VAPs in two secure-care centers for young offenders in Adelaide, South Australia (22 males, 1 female; aged 14-18 years, M = 16.5 years). Control subjects were selected from other residents who had not previously attended VAPs (15 males; aged 14-18 years, M = 16.8 years).

Instrument

Both treatment and control subjects were assessed using a measure of moral reasoning maturity - the Sociomoral Reflection Measure - Short Form (SRM-SF; Gibbs, Basinger, & Fuller, 1992). …