Theoretical and Methodological Issues in Studying Children's Capacities in Legal Contexts

Publication Date: June 1996

Publisher: MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice (ADJJ)

Author(s): Richard E. Redding; N. Dickon Reppucci; Jennifer L. Woolard

Research Area: Justice; Population and demographics; Social conditions

Keywords: Legal socialization; Maturity; Adjudicative competence; Juvenile justice

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


Understanding children's capacities in legal contexts is an urgent priority for psychology and the law. The distinction between capacity and performance is discussed in light of two research goals: (a) identifying children's capacities relevant to law; and (b) identifying the circumstances under which their performance varies. This discussion leads to three fundamental research issues that are explored. First, in addition to general capacity, the effect of specific legal contexts on performance requires investigation. Second, capacities research must take a developmental approach using appropriate, ecologically valid target and comparison samples. Third, legal standards and their inherent developmental assumptions about children's capacities must be operationalized and investigated from both legal and psychological perspectives.