Robert Martinson was a socialist during his life and would be a reformer if he were alive today. He ran for mayor of Berkeley as a socialist. He was active in liberal causes, and was even arrested as a freedom rider in the South in the 1960s.
He spent over a month in Mississippi jails, and wrote about his experience. His incarceration inspired him to study prisons and inmates as a professor later in life. In 1966, the New York State Governor’s Commission on Criminal Offenders commissioned a study by Martinson. He conducted it with two other academics, Douglas Lipton and Judith Wilks. They were tasked with determining an effective way to rehabilitate prisoners by reviewing 231 studies on the subject. The studies were conducted between 1945 and 1967.
- Educational and vocational training;
- Individual counseling;
- Group counseling;
- Transforming the institutional environment;
- Reducing sentences;
- Probation or parole instead of prison;
- Intensive supervision;
- Treatment in the community; and
- Medical treatment.
Once his review was complete, Martinson concluded that government had not found a way to rehabilitate prisoners. “[T]he represent array of correctional treatments has no appreciable effect – positive or negative – on rates of recidivism of convicted offenders.” In other words, none of the methods used in the 231 studies he reviewed were successful. He concluded, “rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have no appreciable effect on recidivism.”
He concluded that none of these work. He has “very little reason to hope that we have in fact found a sure way of reducing recidivism through rehabilitation.”
Martinson and his colleagues submitted a draft report to the Commission. The coauthors were reluctant to come out and say what the results of the report were. Martinson was not. “I undertook, on my own responsibility, to supply what the authors of this work could not or would not supply – a conclusion.” The Commission, whose purpose was to come up with a rehabilitation program in New York, was not happy to hear that they were wasting their time. His conclusion was suppressed. It later become available after an unrelated court case.
His conclusion caused a sensation and made him a public figure in the mid-1970s. “The press has no time for scientific quibbling and got to the heart of then matter better than I did.” Media asked, “is rehabilitation a waste of time?” His study became known as the “Nothing Works” study. Martinson himself often said that treatment added to the networks of criminal justice is “impotent.” James Q. Wilson’s thinking on the subject captured the moment:
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… We have learned how difficult it is by governmental means to improve the educational attainments of children or to restore stability and affection to the family, and in these cases we are often working with willing subjects in moments of admitted need. Criminal rehabilitation requires producing equivalent changes in unwilling subjects under conditions of duress or indifference.(James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime, (rev. ed. 1980), at Ch. 9, p. 151.)
Wilson and Martinson were not alone in their conclusions. Other concurring scholars include R.G. Hood, Walter C. Bailey, and Leslie Wilkins. Wilson (and these scholars) point out that, although the press described the finding as “nothing works,” it would be more accurate to say that nobody has proved that “something works.” There have been many hints that some reductions in criminality for some kinds of offenders under some circumstances are possible. But no one has discovered a method that is consistent and effective enough to base public policy on. In fact, Wilson’s book presents evidence that treatment may actually increase the criminality of certain offenders. (Wilson, supra, at p. 157.)
Martinson’s conclusion is still controversial today. In recent years, reformers and the public at large have reached a consensus that rehabilitation should be one of – if not the only – goal of our prison system. The California Department of Corrections added “and Rehabilitation” into its name. But Martinson suggests that this movement is built on wishful thinking. The recent political consensus that we should rehabilitate not incarcerate is based on the assumption that we can rehabilitate. But what if that is not true? Martinson’s study has the potential to upend our politics on prisoners, and to radically change the way we treat them.
There was a strange finding amid Martinson’s bleak conclusions. “One type of surgery does seem to be highly successful at reducing recidivism.” Castration works. Not chemical castration: a Danish study on this subject, which was paired in treatment with therapy, showed that it was ineffective. Actual castration, however, reduced the rate at which a criminal committed additional sex crimes by 90%, and all crimes by 50%. Interestingly, castrated criminals still committed sex crimes 3.5% of the time. Martinson observed, “where there’s a will, apparently there’s a way.”
Does Something Work?
Martinson partially reversed himself later in life, writing “contrary to my previous position, some treatment programs do have an appreciable effect on recidivism. “[N]o 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. Specifically, some programs work for prisoners but not parolees, work in group homes but not in juvenile detention, etc.”
However, in order to arrive at the conclusion that rehabilitation is possible, Martinson had to relax his standards. He reviewed less rigorous studies with fewer people. Importantly, he gave up understanding causality: “we reject this perspective as premature and focus on uncovering patterns which can be of use to policymakers in choosing among available treatment programs.” Here he seems to be saying that he cannot determine whether rehabilitation caused decreases in recidivism, despite his early statement that the programs have an “appreciable effect on recidivism.”
Martinson committed suicide in 1979 by jumping from his 15th floor Manhattan apartment, while his teenage son looked on.
“Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13.) “That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15.)