|Moral Reasoning in Juveniles Who Sexually Offend|
|by Norbert Ralph |
San Leandro, CA
establishment of a juvenile justice system, and Supreme Court decisions
eliminating the death penalty, or life imprisonment for juveniles, is related
to a view that adolescents are different in their thinking, motivations, and
prognosis than adults regarding criminal behaviors (Steinberg, 2014).
Developmental psychology and related research from brain development provide
useful empirically grounded theories to understand the changes that occur in
prosocial or moral reasoning during adolescence that have influenced the
juvenile justice system. These developmental theories are as basic to
understanding adolescence as the parallel biological changes regarding physical
and sexual development. They are part of the universal biology of adolescence
and basic to any work with this age group. As the body is changing physically
and sexually, the youth's drives, interests, behaviors, and reasoning about
life and relationships, including sexual issues, is developing. Just as we
wouldn't want to treat medical problems of an adolescent without knowledge of
adolescent diseases, anatomy, physiology, and growth, we are wise to be
similarly informed regarding the best scientific evidence regarding
developmental changes in prosocial reasoning and related areas in dealing with
juvenile sexual offending. As described in this article, the developmental
perspective provides useful and practical assessment methods for this
on probation, including those who sexually offend, have engaged in some law
violation which may be the result of deficits in prosocial reasoning. Therefore,
tools to assess those deficits, and likewise interventions to promote prosocial
reasoning skills would be beneficial to the field. The instruments to measure
prosocial reasoning are closely related to clinical experience, provide
objective measurement, and can be used to evaluate treatment outcomes. This
contrasts with a style of clinical writing where developmental concepts are
used as principles to organize clinical impressions and interventions, but without
reference to the empirical measurement used to evaluate treatment outcomes.
term used in this article, which may need clarification, is prosocial
reasoning. Equivalent terms would be moral reasoning or social problem solving.
Prosocial is the antonym of antisocial and refers to thinking and associated
behaviors that promote desirable outcomes for the individual and others while
following relevant laws and social norms. While the term antisocial usually
describes "win/lose" interactions, prosocial refers to
"win/win" interactions, where both parties benefit. To behave
prosocially means the person is simultaneously tracking their own needs, while being
aware of the needs and rights of others, and while being aware of the short and
long-term consequences of behaviors, formal and informal customs, as well as rules
and laws. Prosocial interactions with others which are mutually beneficial, in
business or life, are usually the most advantageous, because they create the
basis for future such relationships, without conflicts or adverse side effects.
Also the term "juveniles who sexually offend" (JwSO) as used here
describes behavior, not the person. Terms and words matter. The term “sex
offender” implies a chronic behavioral pattern inconsistent with our
understanding of these youth, especially given Caldwell's (2016) finding of a sexual
recidivism rate of 2.75%. Finally, the research described below relates
primarily to males, for a variety of reasons, including the lower prevalence of
sexual offending among females, and far less scientific literature available.
article will review relevant assessment tools for moral and prosocial reasoning,
their utility with justice involved youth in general, and their application to
JwSO specifically. Many issues are important to address with JwSO, such as the
multiple consequences at home, school, family, and their life in general
regarding their being on probation, and the stigma of their offense. Important
areas may also include any prior victimization, school achievement problems,
delinquent peer group issues, neighborhood and environmental factors, family
dysfunction, substance abuse, and comorbid psychiatric issues. Prosocial or
moral reasoning is proposed here as an additional factor to be considered as a
focus of assessment and treatment with JwSO.
bodies grow and develop from ages 10 to 25, so do the brains of adolescents,
but in not so obvious ways. Although the size and major topography of the brain
is largely complete at 10 years old, the interconnections and pathways of the
brain continue to undergo major changes that continue past age 25. In the book,The Teenage Brain Jensen (2015)
describes adolescent neuropsychological development. Major changes occur in
pruning of neural pathways and myelination, while some brain regions continue
to develop. There is a decline in gray matter and unmyelinated cells, with a
concurrent increase in white matter. Jensen notes that the teen brain is only
about 80% mature, and the outstanding 20% is the difference between adolescence
and prosocial adulthood. Steinberg (2014) notes brain structure and functioning
changes in adolescence are related to behavioral changes, and increased drive
levels, and reward seeking generally, not limited to sexual interests. This is
reflected in many ways, and one example is the predictable increase in all
cultures of accidents in adolescence. This "accident spike" is
complemented by a dramatic increase in sexual offending, with the highest
incidence at age 14 (Steinberg, 2014). This is complemented by the increase in
testosterone particularly in males during this period as well. Adolescents
dramatically increase in size and strength, and after puberty have adult sexual
capabilities regarding reproduction and function. Sexual drive is also
increasing dramatically during this period. Typically the "eyes on"
direct supervision for the average 12-year-old is far greater than for the
16-year-old. While impulse and drive, freedom, and abilities are increasing,
judgment is still developing. If-then and cost-benefit thinking is a major area
of growth during adolescence that is essential for the transition from
adolescent to adult problem solving. Bonner (2012) describes early adolescence
as a transitory developmental period, when youth are at high risk for
committing illegal sexual behaviors that in no way reflect lifelong incurable
the rise of neuropsychology in the past 30 years, developmental theories
related to prosocial reasoning have begun to be linked with brain functioning
(Watson, 2002). Probably the best-known developmental theory with assessment
tools related to prosocial or moral behavior is Kohlberg's theory of moral
development (Kohlberg, 1984). Based on Piaget's work, moral development occurs
in universal fixed stages where each stage represents a greater level of moral
reasoning and complexity. Each stage defines the person's moral perspective and
associated rules they use to govern one’s behaviour. Kohlberg's theory describes
six stages which can be grouped into three levels of two stages each:
pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. The three levels and six
stages are shown below and are adapted from Kohlberg (1984).
Model of Moral Development
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
- (How can I avoid
2. Self-interest orientation
- (What's in it for
- (Paying for a
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
- (Social norms)
- (The good boy/girl
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
central dilemma in moral reasoning for any individual is how to get one’s needs
met, and accomplish individual objectives, without violating the rights of
others, and associated social rules and laws. Without an internalized moral
compass individuals are at risk for antisocial behavior. In the Kohlberg view,
violating the law and others' rights is more likely to occur at the
Preconventional Level. The person at these stages does not yet have an
internalized view of social rules and laws as something that need to be
followed, while simultaneously getting his/her own needs met. At the
Conventional level, the individual is motivated by these internalized rules and
Stage 3 and Stage 4 describe sequential steps in moral development. Older
adolescents, and particularly adults who don't develop at a Stage 3 level,
because of their increased size, strength, and decreased supervision by others,
are at greater risk for antisocial behaviors. In what follows, the focus will
be on the use of selected instruments of moral reasoning and relevant theories
with juvenile populations. Their use with the general juvenile probation
population will be discussed first, and then their use with JwSO.
Kohlberg levels can be assessed using the Moral Judgment Interview (MJI; Kohlberg,
1984). This tool elicits answers to various moral dilemmas, which can then be reliably
coded and classified according to the Kohlberg stages. While well researched,
the Kohlberg MJI instrument takes significant time to complete, and uses
examples unfamiliar to many youth. To address this, alternative measures were
developed using the Kohlberg framework. One measure is the Sociomoral
Reflection Objective Measure (SROM-SF; Basinger & Gibbs, 1987). The SROM-SF
has two moral dilemmas and 12 questions. Respondents indicate which options reflect
their own thinking, which are then scored according to the moral reasoning
stages. Another measure is the Sociomoral Reflection Measure-Short Form (SRM-SF;
Gibbs, Basinger, & Fuller, 1992). The SRM-SF contains 11 items which ask
the respondent to evaluate and justify the importance of sociomoral values,
including such concepts as contracts, truth, affiliation, life, law, property,
and justice. Introductory statements are followed by questions, which require
respondents to generate their own answers. Another instrument assessing the
Kohlberg model is the Defining Issues Test (DIT) (Rest, Narvaez, Thoma, &
Bebeau, 2000), which is a well-researched instrument for assessing moral
reasoning. This approach examines what types of moral schemas are activated
when individuals are presented with certain types of problems or dilemmas.
measures of moral reasoning are available. The How I Think Questionnaire (How I
Think Questionnaire, n.d.) has been used to show positive outcomes in the EQUIP
Program, designed to promote moral reasoning and decrease cognitive distortions
in delinquent youth (Brugman & Bink, 2011). The Prosocial Moral Reasoning
(PROM) is another instrument with a significant body of research that has been
used to assess prosocial and moral reasoning in adolescents (Carlo, Eisenberg,
& Knight, 1992; Siu, Shek, & Lai, 2012). An overall score provides an
indicator of the developmental level of the respondent's prosocial reasoning.
The Moral Judgment Test (MJT) (Feitosa, et al., 2013; Lind, 2015) assesses
moral reasoning by examining how the subject deals with counterarguments to
their views on difficult problems. The respondent rates statements regarding
the story on a scale from acceptable to unacceptable on a nine-point scale.
instrument, not from the Kohlberg tradition, has been used to study moral or
prosocial reasoning in youth on probation. The Roberts Apperception Test for
Children-2 (Roberts 2; Roberts, 2005) involves showing pictures and asking the
youth to make up a story that has several elements, including what was going on
before, what are people thinking and feeling now, and what is the outcome. Its
theory is developed from careful examination of responses of youth on this test
and develops a conceptual framework to describe the changes that occur in
thinking over time. It has well-documented and appropriate psychometric
qualities. Responses can be interpreted as increasing levels of prosocial
thinking and reasoning, which increased with age. Two scales especially
relevant for assessing prosocial reasoning are problem identification and
resolution. The Problem Identification scale measures the ability to identify
problem situations, feelings and behaviors, prior circumstances, and internal processes.
The Resolution scale similarly measures increasing levels of constructive
problem resolution, which include the steps involved in solutions, and how
relevant feelings are addressed in addition to the practical situation.
to the developmental theories of Piaget and Kohlberg, successive levels of
development in the Roberts 2 are characterized by increasing complexity and
differentiation in responses. The Roberts 2 adds an important perspective to
understanding moral or prosocial development during the teen years. In a
previous publication (Ralph, 2012), I described how research identified that a
difference between adults and adolescents is the use of "if-then"
thinking regarding the "cost-benefit" calculation of situations.
Regarding a hypothetical situation, such as riding a bike down stairs, compared
to adolescents, adults are able to think through the upside versus the downside
of such behaviors, and quickly make a decision. Adolescents have to think
through the options, and use different parts of their brain compared to adults.
Prosocial reasoning is not just a rule to be used, it's the ability to better
understand the situation, its antecedents, people's motives, behavioral
alternatives, and the likely consequences of behaviors.
research was done by the author with the Roberts 2 using probation and
normative samples (Ralph, 2007). The samples were matched for age and ethnicity,
with 66 youth on probation and 68 youth from a nonclinical sample. The summary
of the Problem Identification and Resolution scales was used as a measure to
see if youth on probation could be differentiated from the normative sample,
and indeed the AUCs were impressive for Problem Identification (0.92) and
Resolution (0.88). In a separate publication, similar materials were used as
part of a stimulus for a clinical intervention with youth on probation, to help
elicit and enhance their social problem solving skills (Ralph, 2016b).
research review up to now has been on youth on probation and prosocial
reasoning. I will now review some of my research on JwSO youth specifically. The
Washington University Sentence Completion Test (WUSCT) is a projective type
instrument, which uses a sentence completion to assess the youth's level of ego
functioning (Hy & Loevinger, 1996). This model and its stages very closely
mirror's Kohlberg's levels of moral reasoning. This instrument's focus is on
the individual's view of self, social relations, rules and values. It is a
broader concept than the Kohlberg model of moral reasoning, but also includes
it. It was hypothesized that this broader perspective more accurately reflected
prosocial development in adolescence. The underlying hypothesis, generated from
the Roberts 2 data, was that prosocial reasoning involves seeing the self,
roles, and relationships in more complex ways captured by this instrument. The
consequences of more complex development is the capacity for more prosocial
behavior. Respondents can be assigned to one of eight
levels of interpersonal maturity. Data is available for the WUSCT with JwSO
from several male samples described in a previous publication (Ralph, 2015a).
The first sample included 14 youth in a residential program for the treatment
of sexual offenses. The second sample included 37 youth from outpatient and
residential programs for sexual offenses. The samples were compared with a non-clinical
group of 46 14-year-old males (Westenberg & Gjerde, 1999). Of the JwSO group, 92.5% were either classified
as either Impulsive or Self-Protective (relatively lower levels of ego
functioning), compared to 43% of the non-clinical sample. This finding is
consistent with the research above indicating lower ego or moral reasoning
levels among youth on probation. Although promising, there are a number of
methodological limitations. The sample sizes are modest, and potential
confounding variables such as SES, and verbal IQ, were not controlled in the
comparisons. Replications with other samples with improved methodology would
need to be done to have greater confidence in the results.
newly developed instrument, the Prosocial Reasoning Outcomes (PRO), has been
used with JwSO populations as well (Ralph, 2016b). The statistical analyses
summarized here are described in greater detail in that publication. The PRO
was influenced by both the Roberts 2, and the WUSCT regarding its general
approach and theory regarding assessing youth on probation. It incorporates
their approach of looking at the complexity of youth's view of social
situations, and steps towards problem analysis and resolution as part of
prosocial development. It is also more focused on prosocial reasoning
specifically, which is easier to learn, test, and score. An assumption
supported by existing research described above, is that youth on probation
generally, and JwSO youth specifically, have delays in prosocial reasoning/ego
functioning which may contribute to offending. Having adult type sexual
abilities and drive, but with delays in reasoning compared to age-mates, in
addition to other factors, may make these youth at greater risk for offending
PRO uses five vignettes and six follow up questions. There are a total of 30
responses, and each is scored as falling into one of three levels, shown below.
Each successive level is seen as more complex than the one it proceeded,
similar to the Roberts 2.
1 Concrete: Simplistic or concrete
description of feelings, rules, motives, outcomes, or consequences. Simplistic resolution
of problems or feelings (e.g., "He is happy", "OK now").
Gratification of impulses is prominent, and also being overwhelmed, or
2 Normative: Provides some context,
contingencies, complexity, or alternatives. Perceiving and acting based on
conventional rules, roles, and expectations of general society that are more
than peer group values.
3 Principled: Clear description of
ambivalence, and alternatives, regarding feelings, rules, motives, outcomes, or
consequences. Articulates concepts and/or steps regarding prosocial resolutions
of problems and/or feelings.
provide an indication of the level of prosocial reasoning of adolescents (ages
12 to 18). Research described elsewhere (Ralph, 2016a) uses the PRO to compare JwSO
and non-probation samples. Two JwSO samples were used, all males, participating
in either a High Level or a Medium Level program, based on risk level. In
addition, a private high school population was used as a comparison group, 53% of
which were males.
Prosocial Reasoning Outcomes showed that there was a statistically significant
ranking between the various samples with respect to PRO scores (PHS>Med>Hi),
as well as an age effect, in that older youth scored higher than younger youth,
(F (1,70) = 4.81, p = .03) There was
also an equivalent to a six-year difference between the Medium Level JwSO
program, and the Private High School program.
partial replication of the above study was conducted using a short version of
the PRO, the PRO-S. It used the first vignette only. While the full version had
30 responses to score, the brief version uses six. A sample of JwSO from a
treatment validation study was used, and this is described more extensively
(Ralph, in press). The sample consisted of 37 JwSO males in either outpatient
or residential treatment programs, all of whom were on probation. The other
sample used was the private high school sample (Normative) described above (n =
30). The average scores on the PRO-S for the JwSO and Normative groups
respectively, were 2.28 and 2.83 (F(1,68) = 15.72, p = .0002). The difference
between the two populations, similar to the findings with the full version of
the PRO, may be due to other characteristics that differentiate the samples,
including age, educational achievement, and SES factors. Replication of the
findings would be necessary to have greater confidence in these results.
et al. (2006), in a meta-analysis, summarize studies regarding
juvenile delinquency and moral reasoning. It complements the research described
above with JwSO. Stams et al. completed a meta-analysis of 50 studies using
assessment measures of moral reasoning, including some discussed above, and
found lower levels of moral judgment in delinquent youth than nondelinquent
youth, with a large effect size (d=.76). They concluded that developmentally
delayed moral judgment was strongly associated with juvenile delinquency, even
after controlling for socioeconomic status, gender, age and intelligence. They
also distinguished between production and recognition measures and found that
production measures produced a larger difference between delinquent and
non-delinquent populations. They attribute this difference to the fact that the
respondent is required to generate a moral reasoning response, rather than just
recognize the right answer or desirable response. The Roberts 2, the WUSCT, the
PRO, and PRO-S, described above would be classified as production measures.
summary, there is significant evidence that prosocial or moral reasoning
distinguishes youth on probation from non-clinical samples. There is also
reasonable evidence that JwSO, similar to youth on probation, show differences
compared to non-clinical youth. However, more research is needed to replicate
and address methodological issues surrounding moral reasoning for JwSO.
Specifically longitudinal designs may be useful as they allow researchers to
measure moral reasoning along developmental gradients.
If moral or prosocial reasoning can help understand
general and also sexual offenses, might it be modifiable and treatable?
Aggression Replacement Training (ART) and Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) are
treatment methods for juveniles on probation that use a Kohlberg model of moral
development. The effectiveness of ART with youth on probation is documented in
a number of studies (e.g. Goldstein, Nensén, Daleflod, & Kalt, 2005).
Amendola and Oliver (2010) reviewed ART evidence favorably, and noted that it
is classified as a "Model Program" for the United States Office of
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the United Kingdom Home
Office. Regarding MRT, Ferguson and Wormith (2013) reviewed 33 studies which
showed a significant positive treatment effect size for adult and juvenile
subjects. It is also listed as a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
evidence-based practice. Both ART and MRT are listed as beneficial practices
for youth on probation by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in
their meta-analytic review (2016). Although there is emerging evidence to
suggest ART is effective for JwSO (Ralph, 2012; Ralph, 2015a; Ralph, 2015b), additional
and more rigorous evaluations are needed. To this end, it would be important to assess
youth in various types of treatment settings, and across risk level. Likewise
age, ethnicity, and other factors such as socioeconomic status, intellectual
disability, or verbal IQ might be factors that would impact treatment responsivity.
This article reviews instruments for assessing moral
or prosocial reasoning in the general youth probation population. Additionally,
research on instruments for assessing the same factors for JwSO is reviewed
which suggests that this area may be relevant for this population as well. All
the instruments reviewed for JwSO, that is the Roberts 2, WUSCT, the PRO, and
the PRO-S, are either public domain or relatively inexpensive. However, it
should be noted that the PRO and the PRO-S are still in development. The tools
can readily be administered, and in the author's experience, these measures
have adequate face validity, and appear to in fact assess moral and prosocial
reasoning. Also the results closely match what is observable in counseling with
these youth. This is important in clinical work where the assessment
information should reflect and elucidate the youth's functioning in counseling,
residential, and everyday situations.
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