NY Times economic columnist, Eduardo Porter, has written an interesting story in the paper’s business section that looks at, in the very broadest of terms, how the U.S. came to spend so much money on incarcerating so many of its residents, and the collateral damage that this overreliance on incarceration has produced.
In tracing how we came to our present state of incarceration fever, Porter isolates a famous report published in 1974 by criminologist Robert Martinson, which concluded that efforts at rehabilitating lawbreakers were essentially pointless. Martinson’s paper was such a sensation that it arguably became the primary trigger that turned American policy fundamentally away from any attempt at rehabilitation and toward longer and harsher sentences.
Porter also looks at some recent reports that strongly suggest that reducing incarceration by, say, 20 percent would produce tremendous collateral benefits while not appreciably affecting public safety.
It’s an interesting piece that is well worth your time to read. But one thing I noticed Porter does not write about is the fact that Martinson’s “scientific” conclusions turned out to be false.
More on that in a minute, but first here’s are some clips from Porter’s story:
In 2012, 2.2 million Americans were in jail or prison, a larger share of the population than in any other country; and that is about five times the average for fellow industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The nation’s unique strategy on crime underscores the distinct path followed by American social and economic institutions compared with the rest of the industrialized world.
Scholars don’t have a great handle on why crime fighting in the United States veered so decidedly toward mass incarceration. But the pivotal moment seems to have occurred four decades ago.
In 1974, the criminologist Robert Martinson published “What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.” Efforts at rehabilitation, it concluded, were a waste of time.
“With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism,” he wrote. Standard rehabilitation strategies, he suggested, “cannot overcome, or even appreciably reduce, the powerful tendency for offenders to continue in criminal behavior.”
Crime was rising in the 1960s and 1970s, alarming the public and increasing the risk to politicians of appearing “soft” on crime.
If rehabilitation was out of reach, the thinking went, all that was left was to remove criminals from society and, through harsh sentencing, deter future crime. From 1975 through 2002, all 50 states adopted mandatory sentencing laws, specifying minimum sentences. Many also adopted “three strikes” laws to punish recidivists. Judges lost the power to offer shorter sentences.
And the prison population surged. Four decades ago, the correctional population in the United States was not that dissimilar from the rest of the developed world. Less than 0.2 percent of the American population was in a correctional institution. By 2012, however, the share of Americans behind bars of one sort or another had more than tripled to 0.7 percent.
Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that putting a minor in juvenile detention reduced his likelihood of graduating from high school by 13 percentage points and increased his odds of being incarcerated as an adult by 23 percentage points.
The impact of incarceration on a former inmate’s future life is difficult to disentangle. Still, a report by Mr. Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington suggested that serving time reduced men’s hourly wage by 11 percent and annual employment by nine weeks.
More than half of inmates have minor children. Their children are almost six times as likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Family incomes fall 22 percent during the years fathers are incarcerated.
On Wednesday, the National Academy of Sciences is unveiling a report on the causes and consequences of American mass incarceration. On Thursday, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project will present its evaluation, alongside an analysis by Mr. Raphael and Mr. Stoll, which suggests that less imprisonment might not produce more crime.
There’s lots more, specifically about how changes in our policy could save us money, so read the whole thing.
Now back to Martinson and his famous “What Works?” paper. Here’s the story behind the story.
Prior to the publication of Martinson’s “findings,” rehabilitation and improvement was, at least theoretically, a part of American incarceration policy.
Martinson came by his theory through his part in a 1968-1970 survey of 231 smaller studies that looked at the efficacy of offender rehabilitation. Together with two other researchers, Martinson evaluated the many small studies conducted from the late 1940′s into the late 1060′s and drew conclusions, which Martinson then published in 1974.
Although Martinson joined the study after it was already well underway, due to his flamboyant personality, his love of the limelight, and his skill at giving the press pithy conclusions instead of the chronically bloodless academic speak of his fellow researchers, he became the study’s primary spokesperson and interpreter.
At best, the study’s findings were based on methodology that is now viewed as flawed and lacking in sufficient rigor to justify the conclusions reached. And, in the last 20 years, of course, more sophisticated studies have produced plenty of outcomes-based evidence that rehabilitation works. But even at the time, the research that made Martinson famous did not not, in reality, lead to the conclusions that Martinson represented.
In fact, although the study’s final findings were not ready for publication until 1975, Martinson went ahead and preempted his fellow researchers without their permission, publishing his What Works? paper a year early and with a more dramatic and newsworthy conclusions than the real findings, which were dry and inconclusive, would represent.
Not that the official findings were all that upbeat. Yet they were nowhere near as bleakly definitive as Martinson had portrayed. They stated, “…the field of corrections has not as yet found satisfactory ways to reduce recidivism by significant amounts…”
Yet it was Martinson’s presentation (which came to be viewed as “Nothing Works“) that would gain purchase in both the public and the political consciousness. After Martinson published, other more conservative theorists would follow after, people like John DiIulio and James Q. Wilson, the creator and the main promoter, respectively, of the super-predator theory. An aggressive tough-on-crime policy followed close behind and kept the nation in its grip for nearly the next thirty years.
Interestingly, in 1979, a year before his death, Martinson wrote a new paper in which he recanted his original conclusions as “not correct.” Programs could help, he wrote, but much depended on the conditions in which they were administered.
But it was much too late. The damage had been done. Martinson’s new work was roundly ignored.
TEXAS FOSTER CARE SYSTEM INSTITUTES “TRAUMA INFORMED CARE TRAINING” FOR STAFF AND FOSTER PARENTS
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services—namely the state’s foster care system—has begun requiring that its foster families certain staff get trained in what trauma does to kids and others. Yes, it’s only a two-hour online training, but it’s a step.
Here’s how Texas DFPS describes the training and the reason behind it. (You’ll note that part of the training is to help the practitioners look at their own possible trauma.)
The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) recognizes the long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences such as child abuse and neglect. The need to address trauma is increasingly viewed as an important component of effective service delivery. The impact of trauma is experienced by children, families, caregivers, and the social service providers who serve them.
DFPS is providing this training opportunity to assist families, caregivers and other social service providers in fostering greater understanding of trauma informed care and child traumatic stress. We hope this will help you understand the effects that trauma can have on child development, behaviors, and functioning, as well as recognize, prevent and cope with compassion fatigue.
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC OF EARLY RELEASE FROM PRISON, CA GOV. JERRY BROWN BEGAN SOME EARLY RELEASES OF SOME NON-VIOLENT PRISONERS TWO WEEKS AGO
Since California’s realignment plan began in October 2011, the politicians and some of the press have wrongly accused the state of letting people out of prison early. County jails have released prisoners early. But the state did not.
The LA Times Paige St. John has the details. Here’s a clip:
The state is releasing some low-level, nonviolent prisoners early as Gov. Jerry Brown complies with a federal court order to reduce crowding in its lockups — a turning point in the governor’s efforts to resolve the issue.
Inmates serving time for certain nonviolent crimes are being discharged days or weeks before they were scheduled to go free, a move that Brown had long resisted but proposed in January and was subsequently ordered by judges to carry out.
Eventually, such prisoners, who are earning time off their sentences with good behavior or rehabilitation efforts, will be able to leave months or even years earlier.
Prison workers, inmates’ lawyers and county probation officials said the releases began two weeks ago. Since then, San Bernardino County probation officers said, the number of felons arriving from prison has increased more than two dozen a week, or 30%
Sentence reductions were among the changes Brown offered to make as he sought two more years to reduce prison crowding to a level the judges deem safe. He wants to meet the jurists’ targets mostly by placing more felons in privately owned prisons and other facilities.
In February, the judges granted Brown’s request and ordered him to “immediately implement” the early releases and add parole options for prisoners who are frail, elderly or serving extended sentences for specific kinds of nonviolent crimes.
Analysts in Brown’s administration initially estimated that about 1,400 prisoners would be freed early over two years by being allowed to shave off as much as a third of their sentences with good behavior.
From prison, they follow the normal path to either state parole or county supervision, depending on the crimes they committed.
“Our first ‘Whew!’ moment was when we realized it was not anybody we wouldn’t [be getting] already,” said Karen Pank, a lobbyist for California’s 58 county probation departments.
Photo from the film 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut