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This Essay merges the perspectives of context and decision-making to assess the role of contextual factors in the unfolding of violent events by adolescents. The framework for decision-making assumes that context is a dynamic rather than a static feature of the cognitive landscape. Decisions by adolescents to engage in crime or violence are shaped through interactions with features of their environments, are contingent on responses emanating from that context, and are filtered through the unique lens of adolescence. Rather than assuming discrete and independent components in a decision framework, this Essay assumes that decisions are the product of interactions across several dimensions: intrapsychic and personality factors; social cues in the setting, the actions of other persons and bystanders or witnesses to the event; the presence of weapons; and elements of social control in the setting. It also examines how social contexts influence discrete factors in the natural history of a criminal event: its onset, the course of the event, decision-making at successive junctures of the event, and actions subsequent to the event.

A second focus of the Essay involves a reconsideration of the implications of contextual factors in violence to the traditional frameworks for justification in the criminal law. In recent years, the psychological consequences of exposure to violence among battered women, Vietnam veterans, and rape victims have often been introduced in criminal defenses as factors influencing cognitive and emotional functioning, particularly developmental processes. The notion that social conditions influence criminal behavior is not new. In this Essay, however, context appears as a dynamic set of factors that integrates social and psychological processes of development and decision-making. Does the specification of the dynamic, ecological relationship of context, choice and crime fit within the established defense categories of diminished capacity, provocation or self-defense?

The Essay begins by defining and decomposing the elements of "context" into several dimensions. In the first section, specific contexts of adolescent criminality are identified, and their influence is defined. The special case of violence is analyzed. The next section constructs a framework for understanding the interactions of individual and contextual factors in decision-making in criminal events. The Essay continues with a discussion of the fit of context within the existing structure of criminal jurisprudence to assess culpability in these events. The final section addresses the influence of social science evidence of contextual influences on adolescent violence.


Criminal Law | Criminology | Juvenile Law | Law