• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 12th July, 2010

Build it and they will come

The rhetoric is stale. The money is running out. Slowly, like an ocean liner turning around on the open sea, politicians are beginning to turn against unfettered use of prison custody. UK Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke has criticized predecessors from the left and the right, questioning the four decade quest to lock up more people regardless of its impact on crime or criminals.Friday’s edition of Prevention Action reported on the beginning of this mania. The increasing use of prisons as a panacea for the problem of crime is tied up with the life of Robert Martinson. Martinson co-authored a scholarly report, initially buried by the New York Government, that concluded that prison rehabilitation programs did not work.Martinson, who as a civil rights campaigner had experienced maximum security detention, used his charisma and writing skills to promote the report’s findings. His goal was to empty prisons. But ironically, tragically, he helped accomplish the opposite. 30 years after his death, the number of prisons and prisoners in the United States have increased fivefold.How did we get from a scholarly report that concluded rehabilitation programs don’t work to public policies that sought to lock up more and more people?Martinson’s report had popular appeal that extended to all sides of the political spectrum. Many on the left were concerned about abuses to prisoner’s human rights. Too many sentences were tied to a prisoner’s attitude to treatment. If an inmate acknowledged he was guilty, if he acknowledged he had a problem, he got out quickly. If, like Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the prisoner claimed to be untroubled or innocent the stay could be long. The political right spoke up on behalf of the rights of crime victims.Politicians from all parties in the US—and eventually those in most Western democracies—realized that being tough on crime was a vote winner. Richard Nixon led the way. Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes and Bill Clinton all followed the script, happy to collect votes by appearing tough, fearing what could happen in they were labeled soft on crime. Politicians picked up on and fanned public unease. The Federal courts responded to the changing tide of opinion by appeasing both left and right. A defendant’s sentence came to reflect the crime, not the extent to which he or she would be amenable to treatment. Sentences lengthened. The number of prison-worthy crimes expanded as legislators enacted get tough policies from the Rockefeller drug laws in New York to the ‘three strikes’ law in California. The predictable result was that prison populations skyrocketed. Today, nearly two and a half million people will spend the night in a US jail or prison. There will be 90,000 in juvenile facilities alone. Assignment is not arbitrary. African Americans will be dramatically over-represented by a factor of nearly four. With 754 people locked up for every 100,000 members of society, the US has become the world’s most enthusiastic jailer.It might have been different. Some stalwarts opposed Martinson’s conclusions. Jerry Miller was Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. He famously closed all the state reform schools in Massachusetts and replaced them with community-based programs. He was a naysayer. Miller notes that Martinson’s work gave no sense of what was meant by rehabilitation. He points to the famous Cambridge-Somerville study, one of the first major randomized control trials in the youth justice arena. It found that summer camps, and mentoring and support had no effect on delinquent behaviour. If anything it mades matters worse.“Well, go figure,” responded Miller. The boys in the Cambridge-Somerville intervention group got five visits from counsellors, none of whom had any formal training. “Why would we expect that to have any long term effect on offending behaviour?” asks Miller.The former Massachusetts’s Commissioner points to work by the esteemed National Academy of Sciences which, having looked at data similar to Martinson, concluded that the conditions under which a rehabilitation program is to be delivered is as important as the program itself. The Academy recommended the support of a variety of strong alternatives within prison and in addition to it.To Miller, the effect of studies like those conducted by Martinson was to provide a stark choice between useless extremes. “It is like asking a doctor for relief from a headache, and being told there are only two treatments -an aspirin or a lobotomy.”It’s not that building prisons is a completely failed solution to the problem of crime. As Steve Aos at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy is fond of saying, “Prison works.” The rise in incarceration has coincided with a fall in the crime rate. But it’s a solution with dire consequences. Aos wryly observes, “if we lock everyone up, we would have no crime.” But what then?The real challenge is the cost. Taxpayers have to pay for prisons and public coffers are drying up all over the world. As belts tighten, governments by necessity have to look for more cost-effective solutions.This has given a surprising opening to prevention, early intervention and evidence based programs. The great irony of the Martinson story is that his claim the ‘nothing works’ was a rallying call to prevention pioneers like David Hawkins, Del Elliott, Mark Greenberg, David Olds and Clay Yaeger. They decided to find out ‘what does work’.Nearly 40 years on, there are a plethora of proven prison rehabilitation programs that actually do work. They might prevent conduct disorders in childhood, or intervene early in the school years, or respond to full blown criminal behavior in adolescence.Now is the moment for others to rally to another call. This time the need is to implement at scale the most cost-beneficial proven crime fighting interventions. Have we reached the zenith of the arc of prison building? Have we begun to realize that locking up more and more people is an unsustainable answer to the problem of crime? If the UK’s Kenneth Clark is a reasonable barometer, maybe political enthusiasm for the idea is on the wane. Clark and other politicians may be asking whether prison works. Some of us have to stand up and demonstrate the alternative.ReferencesJerome G. Miller, ‘The debate on the rehabilitation of criminals: is it true that nothing works?’, Washington Post, March 1989

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