The Debate on Rehabilitating Criminals: Is It True that Nothing Works?

by Jerome G. Miller, D.S.W.
(Printed in the Washington Post, March 1989)

Late one gloomy winter afternoon in 1980, New York sociologist Robert Martinson hurled himself through a ninth floor window of his Manhattan apartment while his teenaged son looked on from across the room. An articulate criminologist, Martinson had become the leading debunker of the idea we could "rehabilitate" criminals. His melancholy suicide was to be a metaphor for what would follow in American corrections.

On January 18, 1989, the abandonment of rehabilitation in corrections was confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Mistretta v. United States, the Court upheld federal "sentencing guidelines" which remove rehabilitation from serious consideration when sentencing offenders. Defendants will henceforth be sentenced strictly for the crime, with no recognition given to such factors as amenability to treatment, personal and family history, previous efforts to rehabilitate oneself, or possible alternatives to prison. The Court outlined the history of the debate: "Rehabilitation as a sound penological theory came to be questioned and, in any event, was regarded by some as an unattainable goal for most cases." The Court cited a Senate Report which "referred to the 'outmoded rehabilitation model' for federal criminal sentencing, and recognized that the efforts of the criminal justice system to achieve rehabilitation of offenders had failed."

But had they?

Robert Martinson's skepticism derived from his role in a survey of 231 studies on offender rehabilitation. Entitled, The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment: A Survey of Treatment Evaluation Studies, it was to become the most politically important criminological study of the past half century. Ironically, though the survey came to be virtually identified with Martinson's name, he had joined the research team only after they were well into their work. Senior author Douglas Lipton and co-author Judith Wilks found themselves eclipsed by Martinson's flamboyant personality and flair for the pithy in capsulizing his version of the meaning of an otherwise rather dry tome. His views were enthusiastically embraced by the national press, with lengthy stores appearing in major newspapers, news magazines and journals, often under the headline, "Nothing Works!"

Paradoxically, the idea that nothing worked in rehabilitating offenders appealed to Left and Right alike. In an unusual four part series in the liberal New Republic, Martinson wrote, "the represent array of correctional treatments has no appreciable effect - positive or negative - on rates of recidivism of convicted offenders." In the conservative magazine, the Public Interest, he wrote, ". . . rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have no appreciable effect on recidivism."

This was good news to civil libertarians concerned with the injustices of indeterminate sentencing. (In California, for example, offenders were routinely given "day-to-life" prison sentences with release dates tied to such vague rehabilitative criteria as "attitude"). But, if the idea that "nothing works" was well- received by liberals, it was even better news for conservatives who demanded tougher handling of offenders. But, to a nation emerging from the Vietnam War and an unruly youth and drug culture, "nothing works" was a slogan for the times.

The decade from 1963 to 1973 saw reported murders double from 4.5 per 100,000 to 9.07. Assault rose from 91.4 to 193.6, Robbery from 61.5 to 177.9, and Theft from 1,128.5 to 2,431.6. The idea that this explosion of street crime must be due to an attitude of permissiveness was particularly appealing. Barry Goldwater tried unsuccessfully to make crime an issue in the 1964 campaign. But as the crime rates rose, Richard Nixon, elevated the matter to a high art. The 1968 campaign made crime a major issue. Ironically, John Mitchell led the attack, successfully focusing on then-Attorney General Ramsey Clark, much in the fashion of the recent Presidential campaign. The implication was that the criminal justice system, and in particular, corrections, had grown soft by over-relying on such vague concepts as "rehabilitation." Curiously, if budgets were any measure, rehabilitation was a straw man. There has never been a rehabilitative era in American corrections. Most correctional systems had few, if any trained psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers. Virtually all correctional budgets went to staff that operated traditional prisons, jails and reform schools. What looked to outsiders like permissiveness was more often neglect and chaos in a system overcome with an explosion of "baby- boomers."

Martinson cut a near prophetic figure as he criss-crossed the country debating criminologists, cajoling prison wardens, and advising legislators and policymakers that rehabilitation had had its day. And as the issue got hotter, others took it up.

Neo-conservative Harvard management professor, James Q. Wilson added mans' nature to the equation. In his influential book, Thinking About Crime, Wilson wrote, "It requires not merely optimistic but heroic assumptions about the nature of man to lead one to suppose that a person, finally sentenced after (in most cases) many brushes with the law, and having devoted a good part of his youth and young adulthood to misbehavior of every sort, should, by either the solemnity of prison or the skillfulness of a counselor, come to see the error of his ways and to experience a transformation of his character." And, as Wilson would later conclude, that character was often more "wicked" than errant.

Martinson had a less Calvinistic view. Arrested as a civil rights "freedom rider," he had spent 40 days in the maximum security unit of Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary. He as reluctant to posit an offender's intransigence to fallen human nature, unduly heaped upon the poor and minorities who people our prisons. But others, particularly Wilson and conservative writer, Ernest van den Haag, soon moved the debate beyond Martinson's control. Since "nothing works" in rehabilitating offenders, we must deter and incapacitate them through harsher prison sentences and occasional use of the death penalty.

Because of the controversy in 1976, the National Academy of Sciences appointed a Panel to re-evaluate the Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks survey. The Panel's findings were subject to wide interpretation, but central to its conclusion was the comment, "When it is asserted that 'nothing works,' the Panel is uncertain as to just what has even been given a fair trial."

Most rehabilitative programs chalked up as failures, were heavy on rhetoric and slim on services. The classic 30-year "Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study" begun at Harvard in the late 1930s and used ever since by critics of rehabilitation as a premier example of the "nothing works" position, was summarized by Wilson in this way, "The differences in crime between those youth who were given special services (counseling, special educational programs, guidance, health assistance, camping trips) and a matched control group were insignificant: 'the treatment had little effect'." But Wilson ignored other realities.

Three hundred and twenty boys were assigned to ten counselors who were told to do 'whatever they thought best' for their clients. Counselors had no formal training in the mental health field, much less in psychotherapy. Each youth was seen an average of five times per year during the early years of the project in meetings directed at such things as arranging physical exams or interesting a boy in summer camp. Not surprisingly, the subjects showed no drop in criminal behavior at 10-, 20-, and 30-year follow-ups. It seems bizarre to have expected otherwise.

Some rehabilitative models have failed even in their own terms. Most research for example, suggests it is difficult to successfully rehabilitate offenders in prisons and reform schools. "Rehabilitation" in institutions is mostly a matter of mitigating the amount of debilitation. In a comprehensive "cohort" study, Ohio State University researchers found that the "velocity of recidivism" among young offenders actually increased with each institutionalization. "Our most important single finding emerges from an analysis of the impact of the court's disposition on the intervals between future arrests. . .the actual number of months during intervals between arrests when the offender was free to commit an offense, diminished dramatically after each commitment to an institution of the Ohio Youth Commission."

This experience has been confirmed in recent research by the RAND Corporation on adult inmates of state prisons. The implication is that the prisons are criminogenic - producing the very thing they claim to treat.

Approaches which give the offender a brief "taste" of prison also have a poor record. The much hyped "Scared Straight" model, wherein teenagers area brought to prison to be intimidated by inmates to scare them "straight," doesn't lower recidivism. Controlled studies show that teenagers subjected to the frightening experience tended to commit more crimes than a matched sample of non-participants. Likewise, "shock" probation, whereby an offender is incarcerated for a short time, (often led to think it will be for longer), and is then suddenly released back to the community, doesn't work. "Shock" probationers fared worse than matched samples not sent to prison. The debilitating aspects of prison life apparently outweighed their aversive effect.

There is also the matter of how one assesses "success" or "failure." Rather than making simple rearrest or reconviction the measure of failure, recent research has taken account of the winding down of an offender's criminal activity. This is a profoundly important issue.

In most fields, limited progress is seen as productive. A person with viral pneumonia who has been treated in a hospital is not labeled a "failure" and re- hospitalized at the first sign of a cough. But a rehabilitative program which lowers the number or de-escalates the seriousness of repeat crimes is usually seen as unacceptable.

As a result, one can have a "successful" program with high rates of recidivism. In one study of a family therapy program geared to hard-core delinquents, 30 adolescents (each with 20 previous adjudicated offenses), were matched with a control group of 44 delinquents with similar offense histories. At the end of a 15- month follow-up, 60 percent of the family therapy group had committed a new offense. This looked like failure. But then, we see that 93 percent of the control group which didn't get the therapy had been so charged.

If this were not a political arena, rehabilitation would be judged against the alternatives proposed by those who reject it. And to quote Canadian researchers, Paul Gendreau and Robert Ross, ". . .the (substantiated) claims for effective rehabilitation of offenders far outdistanced those of the major competing ideology, applied deterrence or punishment."

Measuring recidivism is further complicated by other contemporary events. Simply residing in some communities increases the likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system and being labeled a recidivist. Nearly half, (46 percent) of boys in some areas will appear in juvenile court during their teen years. Among young black men in certain parts of the country, seven out of ten can anticipate being arrested at least once. Though this may suggest failure, it is not necessarily a true measure of individual criminal behavior.

But the NAS Panel identified the elements it saw as crucial to successful programs. "(The) critical fact seems to be the conditions under which the program is delivered." Rehabilitation is less a matter of identifying specific treatment methods, than it is one of creating conditions which support a variety of intensive options. Where there is a wide adversity of strong alternatives, recidivism can be lowered. Where there is little choice, recidivism remains the same or increases.

This was what University of Southern California sociologist, Lamar Empey found in this famous "Provo Project" which showed that recidivism rates fell significantly for youthful offenders placed in community-based programs, when compared with youth in state institutions. It was reiterated a decade later by Harvard's Center for Criminal Justice, when researchers studied recidivism among youthful delinquents placed in community treatment as opposed to state reform schools. Serious delinquents placed in the community with no treatment showed no lower rates of recidivism than reform school youth, and in many cases did worse. Better performance wasn't simply a matter of maturation, but seemed related to the number and quality of treatment options. It was also what John Jay University sociologist, Jeffrey Fagan discovered with violent offenders. The intensity and integrity of the treatment was crucial to lowering recidivism rates.

Though this may seem self-evident, it's foreign to corrections. The corrections establishment made up, for the most part, of administrators, former guards, or political appointees with little background in such arcane subjects as social deviance and recidivism, has never been more than faintly interested in rehabilitation. Even programs ballyhooed as rehabilitative, such as the much maligned "furlough," are tolerated not so much for their rehabilitative effect, as for the fact that they provide incentives which lead to smoother prison management.

Corrections is a system of extremes - debilitating prisons vs. ineffective probation/ parole. To use a medical analogy, it would be like asking a doctor for relief from a headache, and being told there are only two treatments - an aspirin or a lobotomy. More often, it's like going to the same doctor with a broken arm or an acute appendicitis and being told the same two treatments, an aspirin or a lobotomy, are all that's available. Criminal behavior is no more unitary than any other individual or social malady. If the treatment options are so narrow as to be irrelevant, the likelihood of success is diminished. The simple mathematics along suggest that the chances of fitting the treatment to the individual offender are enhanced when there are more choices.

In Massachusetts, for example, recidivism fell among former reform school youth in those regions of the state where a wide range of community-based alternatives were created, . . .from group homes, to on-the-street advocates and monitors, specialized foster homes, family therapy, supervised independent living, individual therapy, in home family support services, "wilderness survival" programs with strong community follow-up services, arts and vocational programs, job finding, and an intensive one-to-one contact and support. Where there was no such array of services, recidivism remained the same or increased. It was not a matter of identifying any single regimen which worked for all offenders. Rather, success was in the mix of models. The common thread which wound its way through the most effective programs of whatever type, was whether or not they had close ties to the community. Interestingly, such services, alone or in combination, were no more expensive than state reform schools.

In 1988, Gendreau and Ross published a survey of over 200 studies on rehabilitation from 1981-1987, many of which used mathematical methodology not available to earlier researchers. They concluded with no equivocation:

Our reviews of the research literature demonstrated that successful rehabilitation of offenders had been accomplished, and continued to be accomplished quite well. . .reductions in recidivism, sometimes as substantial as 80 percent, had been achieved in a considerable number of well-controlled studies. Effective programs were conducted in a variety of community and (to a lesser degree) institutional settings, involving pre-delinquents, hard-core adolescent offenders, and recidivistic adult offenders, including criminal heroin addicts. The results of these programs were not short-lived; follow-up periods of at least two years were not uncommon, and several studies reported even longer follow-ups.

What specific techniques worked best? They run the gamut from family therapy, cognitive problems solving, and supported independent living, to on-the-street "tracking" and monitoring, negotiation skills, modeling, training in interpersonal skills, behavior contracting, individual and group therapy, reading, job training, and intensive residential treatment for violent offenders. Though many of these models were toward classic rehabilitation, other concentrated on teaching skills for survival in an increasingly hostile economic environment. In short, many things worked. A year before his death, Martinson anticipated this is an article in the Hofstra Law Review, pointing to a plethora of rehabilitative models which had proven effective with offenders, he wrote, ". . .such startling results are found again and again. . .for treatment programs as diverse as individual psychotherapy, group counseling, intensive supervision, and what we have called individual help." As one observer commented, this was "probably the most infrequently read article in the criminal justice debate on rehabilitation." In the course of debate, the man who started it all had come full circle. But by now, no one was listening. He had served his purpose and his own issue was wrested from his grasp.

The final irony was that Martinson thought his well-publicized skepticism about rehabilitation would empty most prisons. "The long history of 'prison reform' is over," he wrote. "On the whole, the prisons have played out their allotted role. They cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down." but he misjudged the politics of the rehabilitation debate. Rehabilitation is, for the most part, now absent from contemporary American corrections. Harsher sentences, warehouse prisons, and corrections establishment which militantly rejects the idea of salvaging offenders has become the rule of the land. We must now wait for the swing of the pendulum. I fear it will be a long wait.


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