Children's and adults' understanding of punishment and the criminal justice system

James P. Dunlea, Columbia University
Publication Date:
Dec 2019

Adults' judgments regarding punishment can have important social ramifications. However, the origins of these judgments remain unclear. Using the legal system as an example domain in which people receive punishment, this research study employed two complementary approaches to examine how punishment-related concepts emerge. Study 1 tested both 6- to 8-year-olds and adults to ascertain which components of “end-state” punishment concepts emerge early in development and remain stable over time, and which components of punishment concepts change with age. Children, like adults, agreed with and spontaneously generated behavioral explanations for incarceration. However, children were more likely than adults to attribute incarceration to internal characteristics. Neither children nor adults reported that incarceration stems from societal-level factors such as poverty. Study 2 built on the results of Study 1 by probing the extent to which early punishment-related concepts in the legal domain emerge from a specific form of social experience—namely, parental incarceration. Children of incarcerated parents, like children whose parents were not incarcerated, were more likely to reference internal and behavioral factors than societal factors when discussing why people come into contact with the justice system. Taken together, these studies clarify how punishment-related concepts arise and therefore contribute to theories of moral psychology, social cognitive development, and criminal justice.


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