Motherhood and Substance Use: An Examination of Societal Pressures in the Motivation to Complete Court-Ordered Drug Treatment and to Desist from Future Criminal Activity and Drug Use

  • Heather Salzman

Student thesis: Phd


While most individuals who use illicit drugs do not engage in criminal activity, previous research suggests those who do use these drugs are more likely to offend. Furthermore, that the level of crime appears to correspond with the level of problematic drug use. Drug-involved offenders and illicit drug takers who are pregnant or mothers to young children face an enormous amount of stigma and both civil and criminal consequences when detected. The imprisonment of women, often for drug-related crimes, has increased significantly in the United States since the 1980s and as a result, the number of minor children with a mother who is incarcerated has more than doubled. As an alternative to incarceration, criminal courts (and problem-solving drug courts) in the United States sometimes utilize legal coercion to encourage entry and compliance in drug treatment. Research has indicated that this approach may be more successful at reducing recidivism than traditional criminal court approaches. Previous research has found that the transition to motherhood may also have a positive impact on the desistance from drug use and criminal activity. With a sample of sixteen pregnant women and mothers attending a court-ordered substance-abuse treatment program that specializes in the treatment of criminal justice-involved pregnant women and mothers, this thesis presents and analyzes in-depth qualitative data examining how mothers who are drug and criminal justice-involved perceive their motivation to desist from future drug use and crime. Interviews revealed that while the adoption of a conventional maternal identity was perceived to be fundamental in the motivation to change, the transition to motherhood had not previously initiated permanent desistance. Interviews also revealed that legal pressure and substance-abuse treatment were perceived as a vital intervention in the anticipated success of desistance from drugs and crime. Drawing on a theoretical framework combining identity theories and motivation in court-ordered drug treatment, this thesis aims to explore how internal and external pressures interact in pregnant women and mothers who are attending a court-ordered substance-abuse treatment program, and how this interaction motivates future desistance from illicit drugs and crime. Synthesizing these theoretical perspectives, this research finds that motivation is an ‘interactional phenomenon’ whereby external pressure acts a ‘precursor to internalized desire to change.’ The findings also emphasize the importance of identity in the desistance process and provide support to an identity theory of desistance. The thesis argues for more of this type of intervention to support women as an alternative to incarceration.
Date of Award31 Dec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorLisa Williams (Supervisor)

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