DOES MARRIAGE REDUCE CRIME? A COUNTERFACTUAL APPROACH TO WITHIN-INDIVIDUAL CAUSAL EFFECTS*

Authors

  • ROBERT J. SAMPSON,

    1. Chair of the Department of Sociology and the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. His research interests include crime, the life course, neighborhood effects, and the city
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  • JOHN H. LAUB,

    1. Professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, College Park. His areas of research include crime and deviance over the life course, juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice, and the history of criminology. He has published widely including most recently Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70, co-authored with Robert J. Sampson, Harvard University Press, 2003
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  • CHRISTOPHER WIMER

    1. Doctoral candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University, where he studies social stratification and its consequences for children. His research involves the intersection between neighborhoods and work, and how these contextual factors influence childrearing. In addition, he has published on the contextual determinants of children's participation in out-of-school time programs.
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  • *

    We thank the Russell Sage Foundation (Grant # 85-01-23) for funding support and the following colleagues for advice: Chris Winship, Felix Elwert, David Harding, Steve Raudenbush, Guanglei Hong, Jamie Robins, and the reviewers of Criminology. Direct all correspondence to Robert J. Sampson, Department of Sociology, Harvard University, William James Hall, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA 02138 USA; e-mail: rsampson@wjh.harvard.edu.

Abstract

Although marriage is associated with a plethora of adult outcomes, its causal status remains controversial in the absence of experimental evidence. We address this problem by introducing a counterfactual life-course approach that applies inverse probability of treatment weighting (IPTW) to yearly longitudinal data on marriage, crime, and shared covariates in a sample of 500 high-risk boys followed prospectively from adolescence to age 32. The data consist of criminal histories and death records for all 500 men plus personal interviews, using a life-history calendar, with a stratified subsample of 52 men followed to age 70. These data are linked to an extensive battery of individual and family background measures gathered from childhood to age 17 — before entry into marriage. Applying IPTW to multiple specifications that also incorporate extensive time-varying covariates in adulthood, being married is associated with an average reduction of approximately 35 percent in the odds of crime compared to nonmarried states for the same man. These results are robust, supporting the inference that states of marriage causally inhibit crime over the life course.

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