Public Release: 

UF study: Marriage can reduce life of crime

University of Florida

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- The bliss of a steady marriage is a strong antidote to a life of crime, a new University of Florida study finds. In a study of paroled men, the UF research team found that the most hardened ex-cons were far less likely to return to their crooked ways if they settled down into the routines of a solid marriage, said Alex Piquero, a UF professor of criminology and law who led the study.

This tendency to stay on the straight and narrow was common among whites, blacks and Hispanics, according to the study published in the September issue of the journal Social Science Quarterly.

"People who are married often have schedules where they work 9-to-5 jobs, come home for dinner, take care of children if they have them, watch television, go to bed and repeat that cycle over and over again," Piquero said. "People who are not married have a lot of free rein to do a lot of what they want, especially if they are not employed."

There is a twist. Common-law marriages or living with a partner did not have the same crime-reducing effect as did traditional marriages in which the knot is tied, the union is registered at the courthouse, and there is a general expectation to lead a steady life.

In fact, the study found that cohabiting without marriage actually increased the likelihood that parolees would recommit crimes, at least among parolees who are not Caucasian.

"Nonwhites, especially African-Americans, have lower rates of marriages than whites, and it could be, especially among male criminal offenders, that the idea of marriage is a foreign concept to them, perhaps because they may have come from single-parent families or are surrounded by single-parent households," he said.

Statistics indicate many nonwhite parolees are not steadily employed, so women may not look upon them as desirable marriage partners anyway, Piquero said. Rather than entering relationships with partners who might stymie their involvement in crime, ex-cons end up sticking with women who allow them to continue their errant ways, he said.

"There's something about crossing the line of getting married that helps these men stay away from crime," he said. "If they don't cross that line, they can continue their lifestyles, which are pretty erratic."

Using arrest records from the state of California, Piquero, Karen Parker, also a UF criminology and law professor, and John MacDonald, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor, tracked each of 524 men in their late teens and early 20s for a seven-year period after they were paroled from the California Youth Authority during the 1970s and 1980s. The sample of men, who had been incarcerated for lengthy periods of time, was 48.5 percent white, 33 percent black, 16.6 percent Hispanic and 1.9 percent other races. The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, sought to identify factors leading to continued involvement in crime, as well as those relating to crime reduction, Piquero said. It examined alcohol and drug use, marriage and employment.

The only other factor to influence recidivism was heroin dependency, Piquero said. Parolees who abused heroin became involved in a wide range of violent and nonviolent crimes, he said.

Piquero said he was surprised by the results.

As the state's last stop for criminal offenders, the California Youth Authority draws the worst criminal offenders. "These aren't one-time offenders who are selling a few joints out on the street," he said. "I honestly didn't expect to find the 'marriage effect' among these people, because they had made lots of bad choices in their lives prior to this point and had long, long rap sheets," he said.

The results also may apply to criminals across the country because research has shown many crime-related factors are similar nationally and even internationally, Piquero said. "Serious offenders in California are not that much different from serious offenders in Florida, New Jersey or New York," he said.

The findings underscore the importance of life circumstances over time, Piquero said. "It shows that life events such as marriage matter and can trigger changes from one pathway to another, causing a move in a different direction," he said.

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Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: Alex Piquero

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