Historical Background: The "What Works?" Debate

Over the course of the 20th century the practice of penology has witnessed a fierce struggle between proponents of punishment and proponents of rehabilitation (Andrews & Bonta, 1998; Cullen & Gendreau, 1989; Hollin, 1992). These conflicting ideals reached a crescendo during the 1970’s in what subsequently became know as the ‘nothing works / what works’ debate. Prior to the 1970’s, rehabilitation - in the form of human service treatment, was widely accepted as a legitimate goal of correctional operations (Hollin, 2000). However the 1970’s saw a dramatic shift in the power balance between the competing goals of rehabilitation and punishment (Andrews & Bonta, 1998; Bonta, 1997; Cullen & Gendreau, 1989). Faced with rising crime rates and increasing prison crowding 1 there was general public and professional disillusionment about the effectiveness of offender rehabilitation programmes (Cullen, Fischer & Applegate, 2000).

The backlash against rehabilitation was further amplified by the influential review of Martinson (1974) whose name became synonymous with the ‘nothing works’ doctrine. This title came from the often cited article by Martinson (1974: ‘What Works? – Questions and Answers about Prison Reform’). This paper is commonly credited with expediting the demise of human service and ideals of rehabilitation (Andrews & Bonta, 1998; Cullen & Gendreau, 1989). Martinson (1974) reviewed 231 studies of prison rehabilitative programmes. On the basis of his analysis he concluded that offender treatment was largely ineffective. For example, “…education… or psychotherapy at its best, cannot overcome, or even appreciably reduce, the powerful tendency for offenders to continue in criminal behaviour” (p.49). Lipton, Martinson and Wilks’ (1975 2 and also Brody, 1976), similarly noted that firstly, research done up to that point was methodologically weak, and secondly, that there was no evidence that any treatment could consistently be relied upon to reduce recidivism. These arguments were not only favourably received by the dominant mainstream criminology scholars, but they were also consistent with the right-wing political ideologies of the 1970’s and 1980’s (for example, as espoused by the Thatcher and Regan governments in the United Kingdom and United States of America, respectively: Hollin, 2000). The pessimistic rhetoric of the ‘nothing works’ doctrine obviously had serious implications for the willingness of correctional authorities to invest resources in rehabilitative efforts. The apparent futility of correctional rehabilitation was a perfect excuse for (depending on the chosen ideology) harsher penalties, just desserts or political revolution (Hollin, 2000). The 1970’s and 1980’s thus saw government funding shifting away from rehabilitation into primary crime prevention (e.g., policing) and deterrence (e.g., boot camps, ‘scared straight’ interventions, ‘short, sharp shocks’).

However, not all hope was lost. A small number of vocal critics of the ‘nothing works’ doctrine actively challenged the assumptions and empirical evidence presented by Martinson and colleagues. Foremost in this debate were a number of North American researchers, including Ted Palmer, Paul Gendreau, Don Andrews and Robert Ross. At the same time as Martinson was announcing that very few things had any effect on recidivism, Palmer (1975) was reanalysing the same data and finding that more things worked than the original analysis showed (this position was also supported by Thornton’s (1987) reanalysis of a selection of studies used by Lipton and co-workers in 1975). Similarly, Gendreau and Ross (1979) and Ross and Gendreau (1980) were reporting on research that documented positive outcomes, directly countering the argument that nothing worked. Perhaps the most damaging blow to the ‘nothing works’ position was delivered by Robert Martinson himself. In 1979 he wrote a paper which acknowledged errors in the earlier reviews and reported on a number of new studies which demonstrated that some things did work. On the basis of substantial contradictory evidence, Martinson recanted the ‘nothing works’ statements made in his 1974 article.

1 For example in the Unites States, in the 45 years between 1925 and 1970 the prison population rose from 100,000 to 200,000. However, in the next 10 years to 1980 the population mushroomed to 320,000 and by 1985 had reached almost 500,000 (Bartol, 1991).

2 The Lipton et al. (1975) and Martinson (1974) publications are in fact based on the same data.