Understanding the Role of Marriage in Black Women’s Offending Over the Life Course

  • Stephanie M. DiPietroEmail author
  • Elaine Eggleston Doherty
  • Bianca E. Bersani



Black women remain a traditionally understudied population in life course criminology and in studies of criminal desistance specifically. This work contributes to the desistance literature by focusing on within-group heterogeneity among black women, and examining whether variation in the structural position (measured at both distal and proximate points in the life course) conditions the relationship between a well-recognized correlate of desistance—marriage—and offending.


The sample of 636 black females is drawn from the Woodlawn project, a longitudinal, interdisciplinary study of social adaptation, psychological well-being, and crime in a Chicago community cohort of black Americans who were in first grade in 1966. To test for potential moderating effects of structural position on the marriage-offending link, we employ hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) to simultaneously estimate variation in crime within-individuals while accounting for between-individual differences in offending.


Findings suggest that both childhood and adult measures of structural position condition the marriage-offending link in important ways. Most notably, black women who are more socioeconomically disadvantaged reap greater benefits from marriage—in the form of a reduced probability of offending—than their more advantaged counterparts.


To the degree that women’s pathways to offending are shaped by their socioeconomic marginalization, the practical benefits of marriage (e.g., economic improvement) might surpass other traditionally recognized mechanisms of desistance (e.g., social bonds) in their importance. Future life course research should highlight the complexity of lived experiences by explicitly considering one’s race, gender, and social-structural position.


Marriage Desistance African Americans Offending Life course criminology 



This study uses data from the Woodlawn project, which was designed and executed by Shepphard Kellam and Margaret Ensminger and funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and other NIH institutes. We are especially grateful to these original researchers, the Woodlawn study participants, Woodlawn Advisory Board, and all of the researchers who have been instrumental in creating and maintaining this rich data set. We thank Shytierra Gaston for her research assistance on this paper and John Laub, Lee Slocum, Kerry Green, and Margaret Ensminger for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.


The current research was partially funded by NIDA grant R01 DA033999 and by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Criminology and Criminal JusticeUniversity of Missouri – St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of Massachusetts BostonBostonUSA

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