Martinson Repudiated “Nothing Works!”

face of a prisoner

After his 1974 article on the ineffectiveness of rehabilitation had attracted widespread attention, Robert Martinson repudiated most of its analysis and some of its conclusions. Articles published in 1976 and 1977 with Martinson as co-author highlighted the value of parole:

At the very least, the data in table 1 should give pause to those policymakers and legislators who have been operating on the unexamined assumption that parole supervision makes no difference. In face of the evidence in table 1 such an assumption is unlikely.^ ^

In an article published in 1979, Martinson explained:

{The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment} focused on summarizing evaluation research which purported to uncover casuality; in our current study we reject this perspective as premature and focus on uncovering patterns which can be of use to policymakers in choosing among available treatment programs. These patterns are sufficiently consistent to oblige me to modify my previous conclusion. …

Indeed, it was misleading to judge criminal justice on the basis of these evaluation studies.

Martinson’s approach in 1979 was more impressionistic. His new compilation of findings was not limited to “experimental (evaluation) research,” which comprised only about 10% of available studies. Any study presenting relevant, verifiable statistics for a group of more than ten sentenced offenders was included in his meta-analysis. His paper presented a wider variety of data organized in more diverse, less disciplined ways. His main conclusions insightfully explored challenges of program evaluation:

contrary to my previous position, some treatment programs do have an appreciable effect on recidivism. Some programs are indeed beneficial; of equal or greater significance, some programs are harmful. …

The most interesting general conclusion is that no treatment program now used in criminal justice is inherently either substantially helpful or harmful. The critical fact seems to be the conditions under which the program is delivered.^

Leading critics of the claim “Nothing works!” substantially agreed with this conclusion. A 1987 review of evidence that concluded with strong support for rehabilitation efforts also observed:

we are absolutely amateurish at implementing and maintaining our successful experimentally demonstrated programs within the social service delivery systems provided routinely by government and private agencies. This is what doesn’t work! We have made only very tentative progress in examining the conditions under which the principles of effective intervention can be implemented and maintained successfully in the real world (see Backer, Liberman, and Kuchnel 1986; Fagan and Hartstone under review; Gendreau and Andrews 1979; Shadish 1984).^

In the real world, undoubtedly persons in a variety of positions – prison staff, professional service providers, volunteers – appreciably help prisoners. That help, however, has been difficult for scholars to appropriate through treatment expertise.

In 1989, a rehabilitation professional wrote an article entitled “Criminology: Is Rehabilitation a Waste of Time?” It appeared in a prominent U.S. newspaper. The article began thus:

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 teen-age son looked on. Martinson had become the leading debunker of the idea that society could “rehabilitate” criminals.^

Contrary to this Gothic introduction, Martinson committed suicide in the summer of 1979. The treatment Martinson received from rehabilitation professionals contribute to his personal anguish:

Martinson was plagued by professional worries. “What Works?” had come under heavy attack. Critics accused him of everything from scholarly malfeasance to sheer stupidity. So serious were the charges that a panel from the National Academy of Science retraced his research. It concluded that Martinson was essentially correct, and in 1979 it issued the article a clean bill of health.^

Martinson’s publications as early as 1976 exude frustration and a sense of persecution:

some treatment advocates have been motivated to become kinglike and shoot or at least shoot down the messengers. We have been tagged “yellow scientists” (apparently close kin of yellow journalists), pessimists, and idealists in search of the magic cure for all offenders all the time.^ ^

Martinson seems to have suffered from lack of appreciation for treatment, broadly understood. The rehabilitation professional’s 1989 article, “Criminology: Is Rehabilitation a Waste of Time?” concluded:

A fitting epilogue to the rehabiliation debate can be found in the research conducted in 1987-88 on New York’s successful “Stay’n Out” thereapeutic community drug abuse treatment program – another model with an extensive aftercare component. Both male and female drug addicts showed dramatically lower arrest rates than control groups. The research monograph was coauthored by Douglas Lipton, senior author of the 1975 survey which Martinson claimed showed that “nothing works.” Lipton is now a leading advocate of rehabilitation in corrections.^

This sinner-saved narrative fits well the theme of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation of prisoners has thrived as a professional field. In 1970, the U.S. incarcerated 161 persons per 100,000 residents. By 2010, that ratio had risen to a world-leading 733 incarcerated persons per 100,000 residents. The need for rehabilitation professionals is now greater than ever.

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