Rehabilitating Rehabilitation

February 26, 2015

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

Earlier, we showed how juvenile crime rates skyrocketed throughout the late 80s and early 90s.  In 1995, a political scientist named John Dilulio Jr. forecasted that juvenile crime rates would go even higher. He warned of the “coming of the super-predators,” and it started a media sensation. Nearly every state responded by adopting reforms that meant harsher punishment for juveniles. Between 1987 and 1995, an historic number of juveniles were put into adult jails and prisons. Including Jeff Coats. Today, we review Dilulio’s projections and their effects.

Click to Expand Biblography

  • Campaign for Youth Justice. State Trends: Updates from the 2013-2014 Legislative Session. Washington: 2014.
  • Cullen, Francis T., Paula Smith, et al. “Nothing Works Revisited: Deconstructing Farabee’s Rethinking Rehabilitation.” Victims & Offenders 4.2 (2009): 101–123.
  • Cullen, Francis T., Brenda A. Vose, et al. “Public Support for Early Intervention: Is Child Saving a ‘Habit of the Heart’?.” Victims & Offenders 2.2 (2007): 109–124.
  • Cullen, Francis T. “The Twelve People Who Saved Rehabilitation: How the Science of Criminology Made a Difference.” Criminology 43.1 (2005): 1–42.
  • Dilulio Jr., John. “The Coming of the Super-Predators” The National Review 27 Nov. 1995.
  • Howell, James C. Preventing and Reducing Juvenile Delinquency: A Comprehensive Framework. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 2008.
  • McCord, Joan, Cathy Spatz Widom, and Nancy A. Crowell. Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice. Panel on Juvenile Crime: Prevention, Treatment, and Control. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.

Dilulio couldn’t have been more wrong. Between 1994 and 2004, juvenile arrests fell by 49%.

At the time, several researchers contested Dilulio’s projections. As James C. Howell (2008) points out in a book chapter on the “super-predator myth”, Dilulio’s projections were plainly illogical. If 6% of the juvenile population were super-predators, there would already be 1.9 million super-predators in 1995, but that number is higher than the total number of juveniles referred to courts.

Dilulio’s mistake was thinking that 6% of the 10,000 boys in Philadelphia were already arrested for serious violent crimes. However, they were simply boys who had frequent “contacts” with police, not arrests or charges. Further, several researchers showed that it is wrong to assume a direct relationship between population size and crime rates.

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As McCord, Widom, Crowell (2011) point out, this is an important lesson in social science:

“Criminologists’ capacity to forecast crime rates is very limited, and ‘errors in forecasts over even relatively short periods of two to three years, let alone a decade or more, are very large.’ When observers attempt to make such forecasts, they should be careful to include both warnings about the inherent inaccuracy of project estimates in this area and cautious about the limited appropriate use of such estimates.”

Similarly, the criminologists we profiled earlier turned out to be wrong about rehabilitation. In 2004, Francis Cullen, the then-president of the American Society of Criminologists, gave a presentation on 12 criminologists who revived the rehabilitative ideal. Below, we profile 5.

Francis Cullen
In 1979, Francis Cullen followed the dominant dogma in criminology which held that rehabilitation simply doesn’t work. He had sympathy for progressive’s concern that rehabilitation expanded the state’s power. However, he worried that these views implied that the law has no obligation to actually help the people in custody. He was also concerned that some of the racial and class dynamics that made parole problematic might themselves by messing up the outcomes of rehabilitative efforts.

In 1982, he wrote Reaffirming Rehabilitation. In it, he argued that the distrust of state power was largely a response to the social context. Further, he argued that the alternatives to rehabilitation–punishment–were worse than rehabilitation. Cullen showed that by diminishing the discretionary power of judges and parole boards, criminal justice reforms simply empowered legislatures which increasingly embraced a ‘tough on crime’ approach. Finally, Cullen showed that, although legislatures and researchers abandoned rehabilitation, polling showed that the U.S. public still overwhelming supported rehabilitation.

Don Andrews, James Bonta and Paul Gendreau
In Ontario, three men — Don Andrews, James Bonta and Paul Gendreau — became leading opponents of the ‘nothing works’ ideology. Working with the Ontario Ministry of Correctional Services, they developed four principles for effective rehabilitative interventions. First, their research indicated that programs need to identify prisoners who are amenable to change. Then, they need to develop programs that match the specific profiles of the prisoners. By clearly elucidating principles of effective rehabilitation, they were able to transfer findings over to the psychiatrists and counsellors that would administer these programs. In 1990, they demonstrated that their programming could reduce recidivism rates by 30 percent. 
Mark Lipsey

In the 1970s, Mark Lipsey began to evaluate rehabilitation programs in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. He seemed to be seeing positive results, but he was confronted by Martinson’s research. Lipsey set out to prove Martinson wrong. He argued that Martinson over-relied on studies that had little statistical significance. During Lipsey’s time, new tools emerged for conducting a more sophisticated meta-analysis. Essentially, Martinson did a qualitative assessment of a number of quantitative studies. However, Lipsey was able to compare the quantitative studies quantitatively. In 1992, equipped with new tools of social science, Lipsey published a review of 400 programs — a much larger figure than Martinson’s 231 studies. Lispey found rehabilitative programs do work, and they work even better when they follow Andrews’, Bonta’s and Gendreau’s principles.

These three findings are just a sample of the criminologists who worked through the 80s and 90s to debunk Martinson’s dogma that rehabilitation doesn’t work. For more, read Lipsey and Cullen (2007), who do a meta-meta-analysis of rehabilitation studies. They find reductions in recidivism from 10% to 38%. Further, in a 2001 study, Lipsey found that 97% of Americans agreed with the statement “it is important to try to rehabilitate juvenile offenders who have committed crimes and are now in the correctional system.”

Despite objections to Dilulio and Martinson, their work had a profound effect. Throughout this period, state legislatures developed a number of new pathways for transferring juveniles into the adult system.

Washington State, where Jeff is from, has a number of laws  that automatically qualify juveniles charged with specific crimes for adult court (“statutory exclusions”). These offenses include assault, first degree burglary, murder, and attempted murder. However, the minimum age is 16—older than Jeff was when he committed his crime. Therefore, in Jeff’s case, it was the judge’s call (“judicial waiver.”) Washington has the 7th highest transfer rate, according to 2003-2008 figures.

Today, these laws largely remain intact. However, there are far fewer juveniles sent into the adult system.

In 1994, at the height of the panic, U.S. judges moved juveniles into adult court 13,100 times. In 2007, that number falls to 8,500. According to most recent figures (2011), there are 6,200 youth in adults jails and prisons.

However, the drop seems like it has more to do with falling crime rates than reforms. The number of judicial waivers’ closely follows the trend line for arrests. In other words, as arrests have dropped, so have the number of juveniles tried as adults.

However, reforms are intensifying. Between 2005 and 2014, a number of important events have happened.

  • In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence youth to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes other than homicide.
  • In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller vs. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory without the possibility of parole sentences on juveniles.
  • 11 states have passed laws that limit the state’s authority to house youth in adult jails or prisons.
  • 5 states have raised the minimum ages for trying juveniles as adults.
  • 15 states have reformed the policies that govern the transfer of youth to the adult system.
  • 12 states have changed mandatory minimum sentencing laws to account for the developmental differences between juveniles and adults.



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