Reclaiming Parenthood After Incarceration: The Nexus of Determination to Desist, Fulfillment of Parental Responsibilities, and Recidivism

Published date01 June 2023
AuthorLin Liu,Susan L. Miller
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 6, June 2023, 870 –890.
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© 2023 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
The Nexus of Determination to Desist, Fulfillment of
Parental Responsibilities, and Recidivism
Florida International University
University of Delaware
Prior research indicates that reclaiming family roles, such as parent or spouse, can facilitate re-entry and reintegration for
justice-involved individuals. However, few studies have examined whether a determination to desist and shield children from
the negative impact of crime is associated with reentry outcomes. This study examined the nexus of determination to desist,
parental nurturing practices, and recidivism. Multilevel longitudinal modeling was employed to analyze respondents’ varying
levels of commitment to nurturing children and recidivism risk. Results showed that returning mothers were more committed
to parenting activities than returning fathers. Moreover, with the effects of prior records, reentry programs, and familial
criminogenic environment controlled, we found that returning parents who were more committed to parenting had signifi-
cantly lower odds of recidivism. Implications for research and policy were discussed.
Keywords: parenting; reentry; recidivism; desistance; life course
In the current decarceration era, more than 600,000 justice-involved individuals in the
United States are released from prisons and reunited with their children and families each
year (Markman et al., 2016). Incarceration disproportionately affects the young, the poor,
and the undereducated, the same groups who are likely to be single parents, primary provid-
ers of financial support for their children, and important child caregivers (Clear, 2008; Clear
et al., 2001; Wildeman & Western, 2010). According to a report by the U.S. Bureau of
Justice Statistics, a majority of people who are in the state (55%) and federal (63%) prisons
reported having a child younger than 18 (Maruschak et al., 2021), and 46% of the incarcer-
ated parents reported they lived with children prior to incarceration (Haskins & Turney,
2018). Over the past 20 years, the number of children with a mother in prison in the United
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lin Liu, Department of
Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida International University, PCA-366A, 11200 SW 8th Street, Miami,
FL 33199; e-mail:
1164965CJBXXX10.1177/00938548231164965Criminal Justice and BehaviorLiu, Miller / Parenthood and Desistance
States has more than doubled, and the number of children with incarcerated fathers has
grown by more than 77% (Shlafer et al., 2013). Currently, an estimated 2.7 million children
in the United States have an incarcerated parent (Young et al., 2020). Examining the experi-
ences of reclaiming parenthood following prison release is vital to effective social services
and reentry programming.
Extant reentry studies have examined the challenges faced by returning individuals
which include homelessness (e.g., Lutze et al., 2014), substance abuse (e.g., Griffin et al.,
2020), limited access to social service resources (e.g., Visher et al., 2004), difficulty transi-
tioning into new employment (e.g., Berg & Huebner, 2011), and association with antisocial
peers (e.g., Mowen & Boman, 2018). However, despite the current markedly high number
of postincarcerated mothers and fathers in reentry, research to estimate the impact of
reclaiming parenthood in reentry has been relatively limited. Gaps in the current literature
hinder a comprehensive understanding of parenthood and reentry outcomes. First, studies
examining parenthood often used a binary variable “having children or not” to capture par-
enthood and focused on between-group differences between parents and nonparents (Breen,
2014; Monsbakken et al., 2013; Stone & Rydberg, 2019). We know little about how the
variation in parenting commitment among parents affects the progression of their reentries.
Second, the majority of existing studies used either a sample of returning fathers or mothers
to explore reentry barriers. Quantitative studies comparing reentry experiences of returning
fathers and mothers in the United States are rare (for an exception, see Uggen & Kruttschnitt,
1998). Third, most past studies used cross-sectional research designs to assess a specific
risk factor and a reentry outcome, which does not capture the temporal change of reentry
experiences. Reentry is a cumulative social process (Western et al., 2015). Returning fathers
and mothers rebuild relationships with children over time; the temporal change in their
parenting efforts might be linked to temporal changes in other aspects of their reentry expe-
riences such as work hours.
The current study addressed the aforementioned literature gaps by examining the
postrelease adjustment and reclamation of parenthood of justice-involved individuals who
were imprisoned for serious violent offenses. Using longitudinal data on reentry experi-
ences of returning fathers and mothers, we explored whether there was a gendered pattern
in respondents’ desire to quit offending for the sake of their children, their efforts to learn
parenting skills, and their efforts to take care of their children. We also assessed whether the
commitment to parenting activities was a protective factor against recidivism. Finally, this
study captured the temporal change of reentry experiences of returning parents.
Life-course criminologists who focus on the continuation and desistance of offending
have identified parenthood as a major turning point upon which people embark on a trajec-
tory of crime desistance (e.g., Giordano et al., 2002, 2011; Laub et al., 1998; Sampson &
Laub, 1993). It has been proposed that parenthood motivates people to desist and, if they act
on that desire, their risk of recidivism will decrease (Bachman et al., 2013; Liu & Bachman,
2021; Laub et al., 1998). Giordano and colleagues discussed how a desire to desist can open
a door to cognitive transformation (Giordano et al., 2002). They argue justice-involved
individuals should have a greater openness to change and will perceive taking on a proso-
cial role as a “hook for change” onto which they can latch to knife off their criminal pasts,

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