Does Punishment Deter?

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

No. 148
Monday, August 17, 1998
by Morgan O. Reynolds


Rehabilitation: Preferable to Punishment?

Large, influential segments of the academic and legal communities advocate dealing with crime through rehabilitation of the offenders - a process culminating in his restoration to normal life. Believers in rehabilitation regard punishment as primitive or counterproductive. For example, Alvin Bronstein, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, contended that releasing half the nation's prisoners would have little or no effect on the U.S. crime rate.44

This school of thought abandons the philosophy of "Let the punishment fit the crime" for "Let the treatment fit the criminal." As Robert Bidinotto wrote, "The ordinary citizen believes individuals are responsible for what they do and thus should be held accountable for harm they do to others." By contrast, those who promote rehabilitation start with the premise that the criminal has little personal responsibility because he is "shaped by a wide variety of forces - biological, psychological, or social - over which he has little volitional control."45 Rehabilitation contemplates that psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other trained professionals can remold a criminal's thinking and outlook on life so that he will prefer legal behavior to criminal acts. This process takes a variety of forms, including counseling, psychiatric care and education.

Yet there is little evidence that rehabilitation works.46 Soon after rehabilitation had become a principal theory of American corrections in the 1950s, criminal activity began to increase sharply. By the late 1960s, the theory was even more suspect because crime had risen to unprecedented levels and rehabilitation was not reducing recidivism.47

"There is little evidence that rehabilitation works."

Studies Question the Value of Rehabilitation. The most devastating blow to the theory was Robert Martinson's exhaustive study. Martinson examined every available report on rehabilitation techniques published in English from 1945 to 1967, drawing on 231 studies. He found that "with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism."48 Relatively little comparable research has materialized to refute Martinson's analysis, although this has not been from want of effort.49 A possible exception may be a modest superiority for the better-designed interventions in the outcomes of juveniles, and some researchers still believe that "appropriate correctional service" and treatment can cut recidivism sharply for other criminals, too.50

The Criminal Personality. A major obstacle to the success of rehabilitation is the existence of what could be called the criminal personality. Perhaps the most important work on this subject is the three-volume study by the late Samuel Yochelson, a physician, and Stanton Samenow, a practicing psychologist.51 After interviewing hundreds of criminals and their relatives and acquaintances, the two researchers concluded that criminals (1) have control over what they do, freely choosing evil over good, (2) have distinct personalities, described in detail as deceitful, egotistical, myopic and violent and (3) make specific errors in thinking (52 such errors are identified).

On salvaging and reforming criminals, Yochelson and Samenow assert that the criminal must resolve to change and accept responsibility for his own behavior. Their cure stresses an analogy with Alcoholics Anonymous: "Once a criminal, always a criminal." Hardened criminals can reform themselves, but Samenow estimates that only 10 percent would choose to do so. He avoids the word "rehabilitation" when describing chronic criminals: "When you think of how these people react, how their patterns go back to age 3 or 4, there isn't anything to rehabilitate."52

Problems with Rehabilitation. Careful studies of criminal rehabilitation continue to find little payoff. Peter Greenwood and Susan Turner of RAND, for example, studied an experimental program that delivered significantly more than the usual treatment services to juvenile delinquents. The controlled experiment showed in a one-year followup that (1) increasing supervision of offenders did not reduce recidivism and (2) there was no significant difference in the arrests or self-reported criminal activities of the experimental and the conventionally treated groups.53

"Hardened criminals can reform themselves, but it is estimated that only 10 percent choose to do so."

In Cincinnati, a well-publicized Community Corrections Partnership (CCP) program concentrated on improving the self-esteem and "sense of community" of black juvenile felons. A follow-up evaluation showed that the rearrest rate of this group was no better than that of a comparison group on regular probation.54

In the case of street gang crime, Professor Malcolm Klein found that "typical liberal-based gang interventions have failed to manifest much utility. They appeal to our best instincts, but are too indirect, too narrow or else produce boomerang effects by producing increased gang cohesiveness."55 Professor Klein also worried that "suppression approaches can produce precisely the same effect as earlier liberal approaches - namely, increased gang cohesion."56

The truth is that changing criminal behavior by means other than deterrence is always problematical - so much so, perhaps, that prison authorities in Texas and elsewhere have initiated experimental "faith-based" programs for small groups of offenders. The idea is that religious transformation will make some impact - possibly a decisive one - on criminal behavior. The programs are too recent to evaluate.

A comprehensive scientific evaluation of hundreds of previous studies and prevention programs funded by the Justice Department found that "some programs work, some don't, and some may even increase crime."57 The report was prepared by the University of Maryland's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice for the Justice Department and mandated by Congress.58 Among the programs that seemed to work were home visits in early infancy by nurses to reduce child abuse - a risk factor for later delinquency - and Head Start programs with home visits by teachers to impart parenting skills. Still, far too little is known and the report calls for 10 percent of all federal funding for these programs to be spent on independent evaluations of the impact of prevention programs.

Work as Rehabilitation. Voluntary self-help, in the form of work by prisoners, seems to have more of a chance of being productive. Work enables prisoners to earn wages and acquire marketable skills while learning individual responsibility and the value of productive labor. It also ensures that they are able to contribute to victim compensation and to their own and their families' support while they are in prison. A 1991 study by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons found that only 6.6 percent of federal inmates employed in prison industries violated their parole or were rearrested within a year of their release vs. 20 percent of nonemployed prisoners.59


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