Go Forth and Sin No More
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Fifty years ago, California was leading America in a new approach to prisons. Under Governor Earl Warren, California prisons had abandoned a rigid focus on punishment. New techniques, based on medicine, aimed to cure criminal behavior through therapy, work, education, and even hobbies.
To give treatment a chance to work, California gave more convicts "indeterminate sentences." That meant the inmate's time in prison was partly determined by his progress in rehabilitation.
"The philosophy of the rehabilitative ideal is that you get out when you're cured," says John Irwin, a retired criminologist who served five years in a California prison in the 1950s. "For instance, a common crime, like burglary or forgery - burglary was one to 15, and forgery was one to 14. And then they put a big investment in vocational training and education and then introduced extensive group counseling and they made for them a major effort at practicing rehabilitation."
But by the 1960s, there was a problem. Many convicts, supposedly cured and released, were returning to prison in droves after committing new crimes.
High recidivism raised doubts about whether prison could ever cure criminals.
"The medical model of corrections, which is diagnosis, treatment, and then we release the patient to go forth and sin no more, was based on a number of assumptions that turned out not to be accurate," says David Ward, a sociologist who has been studying prisons since the 1950s. "One: that we could diagnose accurately. Two: we had the programs and that they would be successful in changing people's behavior, and the great issue, how do you know when somebody is cured?"
Then, a bombshell was hurled from academia. A sociologist named Robert Martinson was commissioned to assess prisoner rehabilitation programs around the country. Martinson's findings were explosive. He explained them in a 1973 interview.
"I looked at all the methods that we could find, vocational, educational and a variety of other methods," said Martinson. "These methods simply have no fundamental effect on the recidivism rate of people who go through those prisons."
Martinson also wrote a long magazine piece that became known as the "nothing works" article. That message was swept up by politicians and the media.
CBS broadcast this 60 Minutes report three months after Martinson's study was published.
The crime rate rises and Americans ask why. For years we've been told by penologists and sociologists that the way to make solid citizens out of criminals is to rehabilitate them. Reform them while we have them locked up. Well, it doesn't work. Statistics tell us that two out of every three ex-prisoners wind up behind bars again.
Some academics wanted to keep treatment programs but separate them from punishment. And to do that, John Irwin says, they helped convince California's legislature to abolish indeterminate sentences for many crimes.
"You can't determine the length of a person's sentence based on your predictions of their success on the outside," says Irwin. "And when you do that, you practice arbitrary and unconstitutional practices."
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