Procedural Justice, Legitimacy Beliefs, and Moral Disengagement in Emerging Adulthood: Explaining Continuity and Desistance in the Moral Model of Criminal Lifestyle Development

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Abstract

Research has shown that procedural justice reliably predicts future offending behavior, although there is some indication that this may be more a function of legitimacy beliefs than of procedural justice per se. The current study sought to explain continuity and desistance in the moral model of criminal lifestyle development by comparing legitimacy beliefs, procedural justice, and moral disengagement as initiators and mediators of pathways leading to early adult offending. It was hypothesized that low legitimacy beliefs but not perceived procedural (in)justice or moral disengagement would initiate, and that moral disengagement but not low legitimacy beliefs or procedural injustice would mediate, the effect of low legitimacy beliefs on subsequent offending behavior. This hypothesis was tested in a group of 1,142 young adult males (age range = 18 to 20) from the Pathways to Desistance study (Mulvey, 2012). Results showed that as predicted, the target pathway (legitimacy → moral disengagement → offending) but none of the control pathways achieved a significant indirect effect. Hence, 1 way legitimacy beliefs reduce future offending and lead to desistance is by inhibiting moral disengagement. Besides the theoretical implications of these results, there is also the suggestion that legitimacy beliefs and moral disengagement should be considered for inclusion in secondary prevention and criminal justice intervention programs.

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