New research highlights the importance of friends in determining whether returning prisoners will commit new crimes. A considerable body of prior research has demonstrated the importance of family relationships to the returning prisoner, but a new study John Boman and Thomas Mowen suggests that peer relationships may exert an even greater influence over success or failure.
Boman and Mowen collected data on a sample of 625 serious and violent male offenders, including their self-reported substance abuse and new criminal activity over a fifteen-month period after release from prison. The data also included the offenders’ assessment of their family support and the criminal histories of their closest friends.
After controlling for a number of variables, Boman and Mowen identified several factors that proved to be statistically significant predictors of post-release recidivism.
The protective factors (i.e., the variables associated with lower levels of repeat-offending) were:
- Strong family support,
- Being black, and
- Being older.
On the other hand, the variables associated with greater reported recidivism were:
- Criminal peers (that is, having a larger proportion of close friends with more substantial criminal histories),
- Being single,
- Having more children, and
- Having more prior convictions.
Although the researchers’ model does not permit a precise comparison of the relative predictive strength of these variables, the data suggest that criminal peers may exert an even greater influence over levels of repeat-offending than family support. In other words, negative peer influences may sometimes swamp the positive effects of strong family support.
Boman and Mowen suggest that their results may have implications for prison administration. While correctional experts have long understood that inmates should be encouraged and supported in their efforts to maintain good family relationships, Boman and Mowen argue that more attention should be given to discouraging the continuation of their relationships with criminally involved peers.
This may be a helpful point of focus, but it seems to me that some restraint may be in order. Pushed too aggressively, initiatives in this area may infringe on constitutional rights of association. Moreover, for some inmates, there may not be many alternatives to friendship with individuals who have a criminal past. Given the high prevalence of criminal-justice involvement in some communities, as well as the stigma and social exclusion experienced by many returning prisoners, there may be little ability in the short term to simply choose a new set of friends who have no record. If isolation is the only real alternative for some returning prisoners, it is not clear that associating with other ex-cons is necessarily always the worst course of action. Indeed, there are a number of successful prisoner reentry programs that utilize more established former inmates as mentors for the newly returning.
Faye Taxman has authored a thoughtful response to Boman and Mowen. She observes,
Unilateral conditions that limit peer access are not advisable because [they] diminish the positive benefits that can come from interacting with others and reestablishing positive social networks. The justice system needs to be cautious about limiting peers until it is clear which peers are positive or negative influences, which means that there is a need to assess the impact of the relationship on an individual before limiting their access.
Taxman acknowledges the importance of the new research in demonstrating the connection between peer relationships and post-release recidivism, but cautions that more research needs to be done on how to promote the development of positive social networks for returning prisoners.
The paper by Boman and Mowen is Building the Ties that Bind, Breaking the Ties that Don’t: Family Support, Criminal Peers, and Reentry Success, 16 Criminology & Pub. Pol’y 753 (2017).