Work and marriage seem out of reach for many at-risk young men, but fatherhood is relatively common. The growing body of quantitative research on parenthood and desistance from crime is mixed, yet the changes associated with the transition to fatherhood align with the mechanisms implied by theories of desistance. To understand whether and how fatherhood relates to desistance and persistence in crime, I examine how fatherhood shapes cognitive shifts and routine activities among persisting and desisting men in early adulthood.
I analyze in-depth interviews with a subsample of 17 desisting and persisting fathers from the qualitative component of the Pathways to Desistance Study.
The meanings and structures of fatherhood experiences were sensitive to local life circumstances, yet distinct patterns emerged. Desisting fathers experienced changes in thinking, including a sense of maturity and an increase in consideration for others. Shifts often emerged from parenting experiences after the birth of a child. Desisting fathers also described time with children in terms of structured childcare activities. Persisting fathers viewed themselves as failing to fulfill role obligations and as ignoring parenthood hook for change. Persisting fathers described time with children as “babysitting” and as oriented around leisure activities.
These findings provide insight into the lived experience of fatherhood among at-risk men. It highlights the intersection of situational and cognitive mechanisms implicated in the desistance process and supports contemporary theories of desistance and persistence.
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The analyses of Mulvey et al.  modeled patterns of self-reported offending during the 3 years following adjudication, taking into account the effect of institutional confinement on the subject’s level of offending during each period. They used a variety score scale of self-reported offending that was composed of 22 items listing different serious illegal activities; the participant indicated whether he had done any of these activities “ever” (at the baseline) or over the “last six months” (at the baseline and first six time points covering 36 months). Mulvey et al. identified five distinct subgroups; case selection of male informants for the qualitative study focused on two of these groups. To capture continuity of behavior, I selected from a group of men that was involved in a high rate of antisocial behaviors at the baseline interview and maintained a high rate of involvement over the 36 months following adjudication; “persisting” men made up 8.7% of the total number of men in the Pathways Study. To capture behavioral change, I selected a group of men who reported a high rate of offending at the initial interview but reported a much lower rate at the 36-month interview. “Desisting” made up approximately 14.6% of the sample.
Mulvey et al.  found that the members of the desisting and persisting groups were more similar to each other than they were to the other three trajectory groups. There was no significant difference between persisting and desisting men with respect to age, ethnicity, and antisocial history, and with respect to baseline measures of deviant peers, psychosocial maturity, and substance use, while both groups differed significantly from the other three trajectory groups. Moreover, persisting and desisting men spent equivalent amounts of time in institutional care during the follow-up period (which was significantly more time than the other three groups spent), and they were equally likely to have received community-based services during the 3 years after adjudication.
In all, 36 male informants were contacted by Pathways interviewers who requested permission for me to access their contact information and invite them to participate in the qualitative study. The six men that gave permission but ultimately were not interviewed were incarcerated. Two of the six men refused to participate in the qualitative interview; both refusals were from men incarcerated at State Correctional Institutions (SCI). The first man refused to meet with me once I arrived at the SCI; the Pathways interviewer warned me that he might refuse because he suffered from anxiety and preferred to not leave his cell. The second man met with me briefly but refused to participate in the interview because he was preparing for a parole hearing later that day. The third man was located at a local jail; when I tried to schedule a meeting with him, I was told that he was in federal custody for a court appearance and thus inaccessible; he remained inaccessible to me for the remainder of the qualitative data collection period. The remaining three men were incarcerated at SCIs that refused permission to use a digital voice recorder at the facility. An additional eight men initially identified as potential informants were ruled out from the final recruits. Two men moved out of state and one man was in the restricted housing unit (RHU) in an SCI and therefore could not give consent to be contacted by me, and five men were not located prior to the completion of data collection; ultimately, they were not needed to complete the study.
Group membership was reassessed in two steps using quantitative data and qualitative data. First, 36-month trajectory group membership was compared to time-based trajectory group membership using the full 84 months of available self-reported offending data (see  for details of this analysis); four of the 30 men changed group membership (Carol Schubert, email to the author, spring 2012). Second, 84-month group membership was compared to qualitative accounts of offending over the year or more prior to the interview; in each of these four cases (including three fathers), the change in group-based trajectory membership agreed with the content and context of their qualitative interviews. Three fathers were recategorized based on this assessment. For two fathers, the change in trajectory group membership agreed with their qualitative accounts (one changed from persisting to desisting and the other changed from desisting to persisting). A third father was categorized as persisting based on both trajectory group analyses even though his qualitative account pointed to a desisting pattern of offending in the year before the qualitative interview. This father had completed Pathways data collection more than a year prior to the qualitative interview and his qualitative account of his involvement in crime during his participation in the Pathways Study agreed with the group trajectory analysis. I interpreted this concordance as lending validity to his claim of his abstinence from crime in the preceding year and reassessed him as desisting.
It is difficult to say whether the distribution of more fathers to the desisting group is representative of the relationship between fatherhood and desistance or persistence in the larger Pathways sample because, to date, only two published studies use these data to address the fatherhood–crime relationship. Tremblay et al.  found that fatherhood related to an increase in offending among men who were fathers by the 12-month wave of data collection, when the average age of the sample was approximately 16. This correlation is supported by Na , whose propensity score analysis found that adolescent transitions to fatherhood increase self-reported offending. Na also examined early adulthood transitions to fatherhood and found a pattern of decreased offending; however, this relationship did not reach statistical significance.
It is important to consider whether apparent desistance among incarcerated desisting fathers could be due to incapacitation and lack of opportunity to engage in crime. However, the group-based trajectories used to select this sample accounted for the effect of institutional confinement on self-reported patterns of offending [53, 62]; thus, persisting fathers experienced similar lengths of time incarcerated and were, presumably, similarly deprived of opportunity to engage in crime.
Participants were informed of how their confidentiality would be protected, of the risks and benefits of participation to them, and of their right to withdraw from the interview at any time. Through the consent procedure, participants were advised that participating in the study would not help them in any way with any court proceedings, parole or probation hearings, or relationships with court personnel.
All community and jailed informants received $100 for participation; Pennsylvania State Correctional Institutions (SCIs) forbade payment to inmates.
All names have been changed to pseudonyms. All quotations are presented largely verbatim to preserve the intentions and character of the informants who provided them; thus, slang, colloquialisms, word misuse, or slips of grammar have been preserved. When quotations were edited, it was to remove irrelevant segments or interviewer’s interjections (indicated by […]) or distracting verbal tics that do not contribute to the meaning or context of the accounts (such as excessive use of “um,” “like,” or “do you know what I mean”).
Peter’s self-reported offending data from the Pathways Study ends roughly a year before the qualitative interview, so his proclaimed abstinence cannot be confirmed. To the extent that we accept the validity of his previous self-report, we must accept the validity of his account.
Yusef’s self-reported offending calendar data and other sections of his interview suggest this “rehabilitation” was short-lived.
The cumulative investment in children is similar to the findings of Laub et al.  regarding marriage and desistance.
A similar pattern might account for the difference between coresidential and noncoresidential fathers, though, arguably, to a lesser degree.
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I am indebted to Ray Paternoster for his guidance on developing the ideas that became this study. Thanks also to Joel Powell, Katie Richardson Jens, Kjersten Nelson, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.
The author gratefully acknowledges the funding for the reported study from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, supplemental funding for Grant #2007-50220-PA-JL. The larger Pathways to Desistance Study was funded by the following government agencies and foundations: Arizona Governor’s Justice Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute of Justice, Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and William T. Grant Foundation.
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Boonstoppel, S. “It’s Not About Me No More”: Fatherhood and Mechanisms of Desistance Among At-Risk Men. J Dev Life Course Criminology 5, 335–365 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40865-019-00120-9