Marriage, divorce and crime: examining patterns of offending in the years surrounding marriage and divorce

Arieke J. Rijken, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Arjan Blokland, Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR)

While an increasing amount of studies find marriage to be associated with reduced criminal behaviour and divorce with increased crime, hardly any studies investigated the precise patterns of criminal offending in the pre- and post-marriage and divorce years. In this study, we test contrasting hypotheses on the timing of change in offending relative to the year of marriage/divorce: does criminal behaviour change before or after the event? Age-graded social control theory argues that marriage constitutes a turning point in the offender’s life, resulting in desistance from crime. Similarly, divorce is followed by increased offending, as conventional ties break down. Cognitive theories of desistance see marriage as a hook for change, reinforcing a process of cognitive change that starts well before marriage. One step further is the view that the association between marriage and crime is caused by selection: only those who desist from crime marry. The divorce-crime link may be caused by selection as well: increased criminal activity leads to divorce. Finally, the stress of the divorce could cause an increase in offending. If this is true, we expect a short period of increased offending peaking in the divorce year. We use person-year data retrieved from criminal records and population registers on a sample of offenders convicted in the Netherlands in 1977. We examine the likelihood of offending in the years surrounding the year of marriage and divorce by conducting logistic multilevel analyses (person-years nested in persons). We observe a sharp decline in offending during the 5 years before marriage, but no further decline after marriage. This supports the selection perspective, but might also reflect the effects of cohabitation before marriage. Furthermore, we find a steep increase in offending in the year before the divorce year, followed by a decrease in the year after the divorce, consistent with the “stress-of-divorce-explanation”.

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Presented in Poster Session 1