The Effect of Marriage and Employment on Criminal Desistance: The Influence of Race

Nicole Shoenberger, Bowling Green State University


Life course theorists argue that key transitions such as marriage and employment heavily influence criminal desistance in adulthood among those who committed delinquent acts during their adolescence. Laub and Sampson (1993), authors of the dominant life course theory in criminology, adhere to the general principle of social bonding: if an individual has weak bonds to society, he or she will have an increased chance of committing crime. Consequentially, the prosocial bonds formed in adulthood through marriage and employment will increase the likelihood of criminal desistance. Although much research supports this notion, race has generally been left out of the discourse. Laub and Sampson (1993), in fact, note that their life course theory is race-neutral. For this and other reasons, very few researchers have examined whether and how race plays a role within life course theory. This is surprising insofar as race is an important correlate of crime, marriage, employment, and other life course transitions that are associated with criminal desistance. Because of this potentially serious omission in the research literature, the current study uses data from Waves 1, 2 and 4 of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to examine differences in the effect of marriage and employment on desistance among 3,479 Black, Hispanic, and White men.

Results show that classic life theory applies to Whites, but less so to Blacks and Hispanics. For Black men, having a job for five years or longer is the strongest predictor of criminal desistance, while the most salient factor for desistance among Hispanic men is being in a cohabiting union. For White men, being in a high quality marriage and being employed full time are both strong predictors of desistance. This research also examines several factors that are not adequately addressed in the existing literature on life course theory such as the effect of cohabitation, marital timing, and job loss. The data show that cohabiting unions increase the likelihood of adult criminality among Hispanic men. Furthermore, cohabiting prior to marriage and marrying at earlier ages increases the likelihood of adult criminality among married men. In regard to employment, the loss of a job through either being fired or being laid off increases the likelihood of adult criminality for White men, those aged 30 or older, and among higher SES respondents. The results also show that age and social class influence the effect that several life course factors have on desistance. For instance, cohabitation is a significant predictor of adult criminality among lower SES respondents, while a high quality marriage is an important predictor among higher SES respondents. Similarly, the analyses showed that having a job was a strong predictor of desistance among 24-26 year olds, while job loss was most salient among those aged 30 or older.

Overall, the results from this study show that the specific mechanisms of desistance are somewhat different for each race, and that they vary by both age and social class. The implication of these findings is that life course theory is not entirely race neutral, and that it must be sensitive to how the influence of life course factors on desistance are conditioned by these important demographic variables.