Crime in the Breaking: Gender Differences in Desistance

By Uggen, Christopher; Kruttschnitt, Candace | Law & Society Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Crime in the Breaking: Gender Differences in Desistance


Uggen, Christopher, Kruttschnitt, Candace, Law & Society Review


Despite increasing interest in understanding patterns of criminal behavior over the life course and, especially, desistance from crime, evidence about the predictors of these experiences has been derived only from samples of male offenders. We evaluate whether there are gender differences in the predictors of both self-reported illegal earnings and arrest among samples of recently released male and female offenders. Our analysis of gender differences illustrates how both the behavior of the offender and the behavior of law shape our understanding of the transition out of crime. We analyze event history data from a large-scale social experiment that provided employment to male and female offenders. The results indicate that (1) gender differences in the predictors of desistance largely depend on the domain of behavior under consideration; (2) indicators of normative status, as opposed to the perceived risks of crime or age-graded informal controls, are particularly important determinants of women's risks of rearrest.

Scholars have long known that to understand crime we must study both the behaviors of individuals and the behavior or law. Yet, perhaps because of controversies surrounding career and life-course perspectives of crime, offender behavior, or more specifically male offender behavior, has taken center stage. The failure to address how legal responses to offenders shape our understanding of crime is particularly evident in the emerging desistance research. There are at least two definitions of desistance: (1) behavioral desistance, or the transition from criminal to noncriminal conduct; and (2) official desistance, or desistance in the eyes of the law. To study behavioral desistance one need only examine the internal and external controls (e.g., commitment to work, risk of criminal sanction) relevant to offenders' lives to understand reoffense patterns (see, e.g., Piliavin, Gartner, & Thornton 1986; Sampson & Laub 1992, 1993; Shover & Thompson 1992). The influence of offender attributes on official desistance, however, has been virtually ignored despite abundant data indicating that such characteristics as sex, age, and social class affect arrest decisions (Bittner 1967; Black 1980; Visher 1983; Smith 1987; Gartner & Piliavin 1988). Scholars have yet to examine, then, how both individual and legal behaviors shape our understanding of men's and women's desistance from crime. We seek to address here these omissions and add to our understanding of desistance from crime and, especially, gender differences in the desistance process.

Early work on desistance emerged from attempts to explain the age-crime curve, more specifically, the apparent "aging out of crime" or "maturational reform" process (Glueck & Glueck 1937). Some scholars drew attention to social conditions that appeared to be correlated with crime cessation, such as the "drift" associated with adolescent male status anxiety (Matza 1964) or the reduction in the material deprivations of youth combined with increasing social integration (Greenberg 1979). Others focused on biopsychosocial factors such as the changes in physical strength, energy, and psychological wellbeing that co-occur over time and reduce deviant motivations (Gove 1985). Still others argued that attempts to explain desistance with social correlates is misguided because the factors that explain crime or its absence are constant across the life course (Hirschi & Gottfredson 1983, 1985; Gottfredson & Hirschi 1990). Today, the development of micro models of criminal careers continues, identifying groups of offenders with similar offending trajectories (D'Unger, Land, & McCall 1998; Nagin & Land 1993).

With the recent application of life-course and developmental perspectives in criminology (Loeber & LeBlanc 1990; Farrington 1992; Sampson & Laub 1992), theories that initially addressed the stability of offending are being recast to determine whether they can also explain change and the cessation of offending. …

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