Robert Martinson and Nothing Works

face of a prisoner

After his experiences as a Freedom Rider incarcerated in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Robert Martinson returned to graduate school. He had entered University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in sociology in 1958. He finished his Ph.D. dissertation, Treatment Ideology and Correctional Bureaucracy: A Study of Organizational Change, in 1968. Martinson was then working as a lecturer at City College of the City University of New York. He subsequently became a junior professor at City College.

In 1967, New York State initiated a study of the most effective means for rehabilitating prisoners. Martinson joined a team of experts that New York State sponsored to survey rehabilitation programs. Reviewing the English-language literature on results of rehabilitation programs throughout the world from 1945 to 1967, the survey team identified 231 studies that met their standards for social science research. They then reviewed, re-analyzed, standardized, and summarized this set of studies.^ None of these studies concerned prisoners’ communications with family and friends. This major effort seems to have been a sincere quest to develop expertise on rehabilitating prisoners.

The knowledge resulting from the New York State survey was not radically new. In an article published in 1972, Martinson introduced his summary of the survey’s findings with these general observations:

The aim of research is knowledge not justification. Without more and better research, we will permit arrogant assertion to rule us.

These general observations contrast knowledge with sophisticated verbal practices (“justification”) and entrenched authority (“arrogant assertion” that will “rule us”). Martinson allied the survey’s findings with consensus and folk wisdom:

The conclusions will not come as a surprise to those engaged in correctional research, or to many practitioners who have long suspected that it is difficult to treat persons who do not wish to be treated. The Office of Crime Control Planning (now the Division of Criminal Justice) was farsighted in underwriting scientific inquiry with no instant guarantee of pay-off. I absolve them and my co-workers from responsibility for the interpretation that I place on these findings.

Martinson then summarized the survey’s findings:

On the whole, the evidence from the survey indicated that the present array of correctional treatments has no appreciable effect – positive or negative – on the rates of recidivism of convicted offenders.^

Other scholars who had earlier reviewed relevant evidence had reached similar conclusions.^ Martinson, identified in biographical blurbs as “co-author of The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment,” stated that an eight-hundred-page volume extensively documenting the findings of the survey that New York State sponsored would be published later in 1972.

New York State attracted attention to The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment by attempting to suppress it. New York State had hoped for knowledge to inform planned new rehabilitative programs.^ The findings of the survey did not serve to justify such programs. For several years, New York State refused to allow the survey to be published. In an article published in a public affairs journal in 1974, Martinson explained what happened:

By the spring of 1972 – fully a year after I had re-edited the study for final publication – the state had not only failed to publish it, but had also refused to give me permission to publish it on my own. The document would still not be available to me or to the public today had not Joseph Alan Kaplon, an attorney, subpoenaed it from the state for use as evidence in a case before the Bronx Supreme Court.

During the time of my efforts to get the study released, reports of it began to be widely circulated, and it acquired something of an underground reputation. But this article is the first published account, albeit a brief one, of the findings contained in that 1,400 page manuscript.^

In the 1974 article, Martinson again summarized the survey’s findings:

With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.^

This conclusion differed little from the one Martinson set out in his 1972 publication. Nonetheless, Martinson’s 1974 publication, and this conclusion, became highly influential in discussions of prison reform.

Martinson’s article fostered polarized discussion of rehabilitation. The first clause of his 1974 article’s title was “What works?” The last section heading of that article was “Does nothing work?” “Nothing works!” became a pithy, emphatic summary of his article’s conclusions. This sensational claim, along with the additional benefit of attempted censorship, apparently was enough to win for Martinson an appearance on the TV show 60 Minutes:

in August of 1975, {Martinson} appeared on 60 Minutes in a segment entitled, “It Doesn’t Work.” Mike Wallace, as the interview proceeds, announces that Martinson’s “findings are sending shockwaves through the correctional establishment”. When probed by Wallace about his research, Martinson offers that various treatment approaches have “no fundamental effect on recidivism”. He depicts parole as “almost a Machiavellian attempt” by offenders “to get out”. Psychological counseling may be a “good way to pass the time,” he admits, but otherwise it has “no effect”. In the end, Wallace is left to ask, “Is it conceivable that nothing works?”. The answer is obvious.^ Cf. ^

Douglas Lipton, the lead author of the study on which Martinson’s article was based, was furious with the media’s treatment of Martinson:

The {60 Minutes} segment made no mention of Martinson colleagues, who had worked on the project far longer than he. (Martinson had worked on the project for about eighteen mongths, according to Lipton.) Nor did it credit them for their research. When the camera showed the title page of the book, the names of his coauthors were cropped out.

This kind of treatment enraged Doug Lipton. … “Everyone kept calling it ‘The Martinson Report,” which it wasn’t. I wrote to 60 Minutes, and I wrote to Newsweek, but nobody wanted to hear what I had to say.”

“I was the voice of reason,” {Lipton} said, “but he was the sound bite.”^

“Nothing works!” attracted those who sought to get tough with prisoners to combat a perceived lack of respect for law and order. “Nothing works!” also attracted those suspicious of state power used for involuntary therapeutic treatment and concerned that indeterminate sentences linked to treatment success created systematic racial, sexual, and class inequities under law.^ A significant constituency also existed under the counterpoint banner, “Treatment works!” As Martinson himself acknowledged in his 1974 article, some treatment programs did work.^ Participants and supporters of those programs, the many persons who sincerely sought to help prisoners and dedicated their lives to doing so, as well as others who just feared job loss, income loss, or loss of intellectual status, all could unite under the banner, “Treatment works!” More than thirty years after Martinson’s articles, this organization of discussion remains deeply influential.^

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