• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 08th July, 2010

A Life of Unintended Consequences

Pioneers of prevention science in the United States like Del Elliott, David Hawkins and Clay Yeager are haunted by the epithet ‘Nothing Works.’ The notion that society did not know how to change social problems like criminal behavior became common currency in the 1970s. The proposition can be traced back to several publications but the trail generally stops with Robert Martinson.Martinson cannot give his side of the story. In 1980, he jumped to his death from his Manhattan apartment. We can only presume his suicide was intended. The rest of his life was littered with a series of unintended consequences.Martinson was a sociologist but he knew from first hand experience what it was like to be incarcerated. In the 1960s, he spent 40 days in a maximum-security prison, the result of protesting on behalf of civil rights in the Deep South.In the same decade he joined a research team created at the request of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. They were brought together to examine rehabilitation efforts for prisoners. The study was well funded and important to an administration anxious to respond to increasing levels of crime. Today, the work that Martinson’s team undertook would be called a systematic review. They searched out treatment programs operating in and around institutions that had been well evaluated. Primarily that meant they had undergone a peer-reviewed study using the tools considered best practice. The programs had been examined using a control group who did not receive the treatment measured against the progress of those getting the intervention. The researchers looked for several outcomes but their main interest was recidivism—the number of times people re-offended. They found 231 studies met their criteria of a ‘good evaluation’.The scope of the study was reasonably wide. It included educational and vocational training. It looked at individual and group counseling. It examined programs to transform institutional environments including efforts to create supportive ‘milieu’ that were in vogue at the time. The research even took in medical treatment, including plastic surgery and hormone therapy. One of the evaluations they considered was a study from Denmark, which compared hormone replacement versus castration for sex offenders. In this and many other ways, the study reflected the era in which it was undertaken.The result was a long and scholarly report. It stretched to 1,400 pages. Its findings were uncomfortable. The researchers concluded that there was little hope to be found in any of the available programs. The government buried the study. The story might have ended there. But while his collaborators Douglas Lipton and Judith Wilks moved on and continued with their academic careers, the charismatic Martinson could not let it end there.Martinson fought the courts to get the findings released to the public. Then he prepared a series of magazine articles and journals to make sure the public paid attention.In one article in The Public Interest he answers his own question ‘does nothing work?’ with the conclusion ‘I am bound to say that these data, involving over two hundred studies, and hundreds of thousands of individuals as they do, are the best available and give us very little reason to hope that we have in fact found a sure way of reducing recidivism through rehabilitation.’And so it was that the maxim ‘nothing works’ came to pass into common parlance when talking about programs to rehabilitate criminals.Martinson thought his work would empty prisons, that the realization that prisons did nothing to end crime would cause a backlash against them and a search for better alternatives. But on the day he jumped to his death there were less than half a million people in US prisons. Today, there are more than five times that number. The nation has the highest incarceration rate in the world. His conclusions, in fact, helped feed a different response, the ‘lock-em-up and throw away the key’ mentality. They can’t be helped, the thinking goes, so you might as well lock them up for as long as possible.But in a strange way, his crusade also inspired a renaissance in evidence-based prevention programs. This Monday in Prevention Action, Executive Editor Michael Little will examine how the curve of history may be beginning to turn away from prisons as warehouses for the criminal underclass and toward more cost effective ways of reducing crime. Have we reached the top of the long arc that was in part inspired by the late Robert Martinson? Check back Monday for that discussion.ReferencesRobert Martinson, ‘What works -questions and answers about prisonreform’, Public Interest, Spring 1974, 22-54.

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