‘Nothing works?’

February 26, 2015

Photo by Steve Davis, at a Washington State juvenile correctional facility.

In 1975, U.S. criminology largely abandoned the idea of rehabilitation. A sweeping review found no evidence that rehabilitation programs were reducing recidivism rates. This scholarship fueled a wave of reforms that shifted the juvenile justice system away from rehabilitation and toward other goals like deterrence and incapacitation.

Expand Bibliography
  • Cullen, Francis T. “The Twelve People Who Saved Rehabilitation: How the Science of Criminology Made a Difference.” Criminology 43.1 (2005): 1–42.
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 1977.
  • Lipton, Douglas S, Robert Martinson, and Judith Wilks. The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment: A Survey of Treatment Evaluation Studies. New York: Praeger, 1975. Print.
  • Martinson, Robert. “What Works?-Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.” The Public Interest 0.35 (1974):

In 1966, the Governor of New York gave Robert Martinson, Douglas Lipton and Judith Wilkes one huge task: figure out what needs to be done to enable prisons to actually rehabilitate prisoners. They wrote a 736-page book (Lipton et. al 1975).

The 736 pages was the result of a six month effort to comb through every good study they could find about rehabilitation. In the end, they analyzed 231 studies. This was their conclusion: “With few exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have no appreciable effect on recidivism.”

Robert Martinson (1974) wrote a summary of that book, in which he examined every conceivable program that might help to reduce recidivism. The results, as he presented them, were depressing. For instance, doing well in a prison’s educational programming or counselling made no impact on recidivism. Further, Martinson’s review found that the length of a sentence had no impact on recidivism.

Martinson considered the possibility that these findings suggest offenders should be treated outside the prison, but quickly dismissed that idea. In their review, he and his colleagues found no evidence that treatment outside the prison was any more effective than treatment in prison. In fact, one study found that treatment programs made boys do worse. Martinson said the same was true of other prison alternatives, like parole with intensive supervision.

Further, Martinson derided the theory of “crime as a social phenomena,” arguing that rehabilitative strategies “have on occasion become, and have the potential for becoming, so draconian as to offend the moral order of a democratic society.” He also worried that rehabilitation implied releasing those who have little risk of re-offending, but keeping high-risk criminals locked up so that they might be rehabilitated. He wrote:

“A middle-class banker who kills his adulterous wife in a moment of passion is a ‘low risk’ criminal; a juvenile delinquent in the ghetto who commits armed robbery has, statically, a much higher probability of committing another crime. Are we going to put the first on probation and sentence the latter to a long-term prison?”

By the end of the summary, Martinson indicated that “nothing works.” Although he found a few instances of partial success, he nonetheless concluded that ”I am bound to say that these data, involving over two hundred studies and hundreds of thousands of individuals as they do, are the best available and give us very little reason to hope that we have in fact found a sure way of reducing recidivism through rehabilitation.”

You might think this means that prisons simply need to do better rehabilitation, not forsake it all-together. Martinson considered this objection, but not seriously. Rather, he wondered if crime itself is an inevitable outcome of society. Perhaps nobody can be “cured”; perhaps they can only be punished and incapacitated.

In 2004, Francis Cullen (2005), then-president of the American Society of Criminology, reviewed the field of criminology’s response to Martinson’s (1974) article:

“Commenting shortly after the article’s publication, Adams (1976:76) noted that this work had ‘shaken the community of criminal justice to its root,’ with many now ‘briskly urging that punishment and incapacitation should be given much higher priority among criminal justice goals.’”

Shortly after writing his attack on rehabilitation (1974), Martinson went beyond nothing we do works and suggested that the rehabilitative ideal is itself bogus. He called it “an unexamined assumption” that is “about to lose its privileged status as the unthinking axiom of public policy.” In 1975, he went on 60 Minutes and reiterated this message. Cullen says Martinson’s work was soon after “reified,” creating a widely accepted “nothing works doctrine” (Cullen 2005).

Interestingly, Martinson’s views were accepted by both progressive and conservative critics of the criminal justice system. Progressive reformers criticized the rehabilitative ideal because it put disproportionate power in the hands of the state, and they found that the state used those powers in problematic ways. For example, parole boards were criticized for making racially-biased decisions. Further, critical theorists like Michel Foucault (1977) problematized the rehabilitative ideal by arguing it widened the net of social control, serving to “enable the state to expand its power over the minds and bodies of socially disruptive, surplus, and/or vulnerable populations.” (Cullen 2005). Foucault and the “new criminologists” gave rise to a new dogma that saw rehabilitation as “a case of good intentions corrupted for sinister purposes.” After that point, scholars spent little time studying how to make rehabilitation better. According to Cullen (2005), they were “in fact cheering for showing that treatment programs did not work.”

Instead, these reformers wanted to set clear sentencing guidelines and legal protections that would be codified in legal statutes. In short, they wanted to remove discretionary power from corrections and give that power over to legislatures. During the Reagan era, conservatives seeking to impose more severe penalties also liked this idea, and many states abolished parole and adopted determinant sentencing policies that called for comparatively harsh sentences.

In 1977 — two years after Martinson’s articleWashington State passed the Juvenile Justice Act, which included the first statewide sentencing standards for juvenile offenders. Further, section 13.40.110 gave judges the discretionary power to send juveniles into the adult court. That is ultimately what happen to Jeff Coats.


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