Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families. 1.1 Marriage and Criminal Desistance


Marriage is a key turning point in individuals’ lives and helps promote lawful and responsible adult behavior.

One rationale for providing marriage education to criminal offenders is research indicating that marriage plays an important role in criminal desistance (Sampson, Laub, & Wimer, 2006). The classic study Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency (Glueck & Glueck, 1950) found that marriage is a key turning point in individuals’ lives and helped promote lawful and responsible adult behavior. Laub and colleagues (1998) analyzed data from 500 delinquent boys followed from 1940 to 1965. Using multiple methods such as personal and key informant interviews, they found that individuals who were able to maintain good marriages over time were 68% less likely to commit criminal offenses as adults. More recent data from the Returning Home project bears out the association between criminal desistance and involvement in healthy committed relationships. Analyzing data on criminal activity and drug use in a subsample of 652 released men returning to three U.S. cities, Visher et al., (forthcoming) found that men who were married or in committed cohabiting relationships were half as likely to report engaging in drug use and/or committing a new crime at eight months post-release compared to those who were uninvolved or in non-committed relationships. The association remained even after controlling analytically for selection into intimate relationships.

Sampson, Laub, and Wimer (2006) theorize that the social bonds created through marriage may help limit criminal activity through several mechanisms: (1) Marriage creates interdependence and role obligations that extract a high social cost if broken. (2) Marriage leads to changes in day-to-day routines and affiliations. Married men, and especially those who are also parents, have less opportunity to spend time with deviant peers. (3) Wives exert some level of social control over their husbands, limiting and structuring their social life. (4) Marriage may lead to changes in self-perceptions as in the need to “grow up and get serious.”

Research suggests that it is the quality of marriage, not the event itself, which buffers men from criminal involvement. Using the same data set, Sampson and Laub (1990) found that the quality of marital attachment at age 25 to 32 was a significant predictor of future criminal behavior. Thus, intervention efforts to enhance the quality of the marital bond may be an important way to decrease criminal behavior and recidivism. However, many historical and cultural changes have occurred since this study was conducted, and new research is needed to corroborate these findings.

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