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The Impact of Marital and Relationship Status on Social Outcomes for Returning Prisoners

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Document date: February 18, 2009
Released online: April 14, 2009

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While a large body of empirical research indicates that marriage is associated with criminal activity, to date little research exists on the effects of relationship status on a population of offenders returning to their communities. This study uses data on over 650 former prisoners to examine the impact of relationships on recidivism, substance use, and employment during this critical period of re-entry. Findings suggest that marriage cut the odds of recidivism and drug use in half when compared to those in casual relationships.


The impact of marriage on participation in crime has long been of interest to criminal justice researchers. A large body of empirical research documents a positive relationship between marriage and criminal desistance, and some research shows that marriage has the same beneficial effect on substance use (Duncan, Wilkerson, and England 2003). Thus, programs designed to encourage or improve partner relationships may lead to more prosocial behavior for ex-prisoners. In particular, previous studies suggest that programs that strengthen familial relationships can help former prisoners successfully reintegrate into the community. However, since these findings are from studies with samples drawn largely from the general population, the effect of marriage and relationship status on crime for a contemporary sample of men exiting prison is less certain.

For various reasons, the positive relationship between marriage and criminal desistance may not hold or may hold less strongly for returning prisoners than for the general population. First, if sorting processes lead ex-prisoners to partner with someone also involved in criminal activity, marriage may have no effect on criminal participation by the ex-prisoner or even increase its likelihood. Moreover, marriage may lead to pressure on returning prisoners to earn higher incomes after release, including turning or reverting to illegal income sources if legal employment options are limited. This may hold especially true for ex-prisoners since incarceration reduces employment prospects and ex-prisoners have shown a willingness to break the law in the past.

Moreover, conclusions drawn on the relationship between crime and marriage from older literature may no longer hold in a contemporary setting, as social mores surrounding marriage have changed. Divorce rates are higher and marriage overall is less common today than in the 1950s. For example, while 70 percent of black families were headed by a married couple in the 1960s, this percentage decreased to 48 percent by 2002. These changes in family structure along with high recidivism rates among former adult prisoners suggest that an examination of marriage’s impact on re-offending and other social outcomes among ex-prisoners is warranted.

Data collected from the Returning Home study of male prisoners returning to Chicago, Illinois, Cleveland, Ohio, and Houston, Texas, provided a unique opportunity to examine the effects of relationship status on reentry outcomes (see data section at end of brief). The longitudinal Returning Home study employed three waves of interviews to follow a group of 652 men, whose relationship status ranged from single to unmarried cohabitation to married or like-married relationship.

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Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice | Families and Parenting

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