Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Effect of Marriage and Spousal Criminality on Recidivism

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Effect of Marriage and Spousal Criminality on Recidivism

Article excerpt

Marriage is often considered an important lever for criminal desistance, especially among men (e.g., Sampson, Laub, & Wimer, 2006). But despite being guarded by a legally binding set of rules that apply to all marriages, marriage is not a uniform treatment administered similarly across couples. The dynamic of a specific marriage is likely to vary by the personality traits and characteristics of the two spouses as well as by their commitment to each other. When studies find that marriage reduces crime among men, this finding is thus likely to represent the average effect of the various types of marriages represented in the data, of which some have strong effects on desistance and some have small, no, or even opposite effects. A range of previous studies have shown, for example, that the effect of marriage on crime depends on the quality or strength of the marital ties (Farrall, Godfrey, & Cox, 2009; Laub, Nagin, & Sampson, 1998; Maume, Ousey, & Beaver, 2005; Rhule-Louie & McMahon, 2007).

Scholars generally assume that part of the marriage effect works through the positive influence of the female spouse. Again, women may represent such positive influences to varying degrees and, given the predictions made by theories on assortative mating, convicted men may even wish to marry convicted women, who might be less likely to facilitate desistance. Cobbina, Huebner, and Berg (2010) presented evidence that only prosocial intimate partnerships reduce offending among females. Also, according to a recent Dutch study, marrying a spouse with a criminal history fails to decrease criminality among individuals who face conviction at some point during their lives (van Schellen, Apel, & Nieuwbeerta, 2012).

Our study contributes to this small literature on heterogeneous marriage effects by analyzing differences in recidivism between previously convicted men who marry convicted or nonconvicted women. For this purpose, we used methods suited for making causal inference and unique administrative data from Denmark. Our data provided information on all convicted men and contained a range of information on these men as well as on their spouses, including their own and their spouse's criminality, types of crime committed, important socioeconomic markers, and cohabitation history, all of which allowed for a rigorous test of how spousal criminality mediates the effect of marriage on recidivism.

Our results showed that marriage reduced recidivism compared to not marrying, but only among men who married nonconvicted spouses. There was no such marriage effect for men who married convicted spouses: Their recidivism did not differ from the recidivism observed among the nonmarried men. But, as could be expected, these men had significantly higher recidivism rates than men who married nonconvicted spouses.


Marriage has a range of important implications. Studies have shown that marriage increases men's wages (e.g., Antonovics & Town, 2004) and improves their health (e.g., Dupre, Beck, & Meadows, 2009), just as there is a positive correlation between a person's marital status and his or her well-being (e.g., Waite, 1995).

Equally important is that studies also have shown that marriage reduces antisocial and criminal behavior (e.g., Farrall, Godfrey, & Cox, 2009; Maume, Ousey, & Beaver, 2005; Sampson et al., 2006; Savolainen, 2009; van Schellen, Apel, & Nieuwbeerta, 2012), especially among young men (Theobald & Farrington, 2010). The literature presents us with two theoretical explanations of this effect: (a) Laub and Sampson's (2001) informal social control theory and (b) Warr's (1998) theory on peer association, which represents a later extension or alternative to the social control theory (see also Maume et al., 2005).

The informal social control theory originates in life-course theory and builds on the Durkheimian claim that men are inclined toward antisocial behavior when nothing restricts them. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.