The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Gender Differences in Desistance From Crime: How Do Formerly Incarcerated Emerging Adults Use Social Supports?

Friday, January 17, 2014: 8:30 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Christina Tam, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Laura S. Abrams, PhD, Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Purpose: Women with histories of juvenile incarceration are more apt to terminate their offending trajectory than young men during the transition to adulthood period. Scholars have suggested the possibility of gendered pathways to criminal desistance in that men and women emphasize different influences to which they attribute their successes. Yet still, the ways that young adult men and women navigate the criminal desistance process in relation to their social resources is unknown. This study uses qualitative methods to investigate pathways to criminal desistance among men and women by delineating the ways in which they navigate their social supports and resources during the transition to adulthood period.  

Method: The methodology for this study was a qualitative, narrative approach. The sample included 14 emerging adults (seven men and seven women, ages 18-24) with histories of juvenile incarceration. The participants were recruited purposively from community-based agencies in Los Angeles, California. Young men with histories of lower-level crimes were selected from a larger pool of participants in order to be comparable with the young women’s backgrounds. Two qualitative, semi-structured interviews were conducted with each participant. Analysis was conducted using an inductive coding approach and by comparing narratives and themes across genders. Strategies for rigor included multiple interviews and member checking.

Results: All 14 participants were successful in desisting from crime during the transition to adulthood although related struggles (e.g., housing, employment) remained. Findings indicated that both men and women used their support networks for the primary purposes of motivation toward desistance and to meet their daily needs. However, there were nuanced differences in their perceptions and uses of these support systems. Young men were motivated to stay out of crime through a desire to provide tangible support to their families. They turned less to formal community resources and readily accepted the assistance that their informal networks, including friends and family, provided.  Unlike the young men, the young women overwhelmingly expressed a desire for self-reliance and a sense that they disliked reaching out to informal supports outside of their family systems. Yet still, the women were more likely to actively use formal community resources and to further derive informal support through their robust formal networks.

Implications: Both young men and women in this study revealed that their primary sources of motivation stemmed from their families, but the driving forces behind these motivations varied. Young women managed to leverage their existing formal networks to cultivate new supports to address their struggles; young men turned to their informal networks despite the availability of formal resources. The contrast between men and women regarding their inclination to use formal or informal supports shows that these formerly incarcerated emerging adults are able to reach similar goals and ultimately desist from crime, albeit in a gendered way. Providing insight into what makes a successful pathway to desistance can contribute to allocating resources that work for young men and women—although perhaps differentially—in practice settings.