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Moral reasoning in high and low risk adolescents involved in the justice system

15 December 2006


Extensive research comparing moral reasoning in delinquent and non-delinquent adolescents has been performed (Hains & Miller, 1980; Hanson & Mullis, 1984; Palmer, 2003; Tavecchio, Stams, Brugman, & Thomeer-Bouwens, 1999). In general, researchers have tended to group all delinquent adolescents into one category, and non-delinquent adolescents have reported higher levels of moral reasoning than delinquent adolescents. This study was designed to examine differences in moral reasoning between high- and low-risk juvenile delinquent adolescents. Forty high-risk male adolescents and 33 low-risk male adolescents involved in the Clark County Washington Juvenile Justice System participated in this study which was based on the hypothesis that low-risk adolescents would report higher levels of moral reasoning compared to high-risk adolescents. The Washington State Juvenile Court Assessment (Barnoski, 2004a) was utilized as the basis for determining adolescent risk level and the Defining Issues Test, Version 2 (Rest & Narvaez, 1998) was utilized to measure moral reasoning. Results of this study supported the hypothesis and demonstrated that there are significant differences between these two groups; low-risk males reported significantly higher levels of moral reasoning than high-risk males. Findings of this research may contribute to increased knowledge about adolescent decision making, differences between high- and low-risk juvenile delinquents, and treatment interventions for these two groups.


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