Criminal Justice Research Paper on Robert Martinson “What Works?”


Prisons are meant to be institutions that facilitate the rehabilitation of criminal behavior. However, this has not been the case as statics show that when convicts introduced back into the society, often they do not exhibit good behavior. Robert Martinson addressed this occurrence in his presentation of “What Works?” study in 1974 (Bean,2003). According to Martinson’s the reason for this failure is rooted in the system itself. The rehabilitative processes have flaws regarding transitioning an inmate from the prison environment to the society. However, the studies conducted over the years indicate that the notion of ‘Nothing Works’ in Corrections has been replaced by ‘Nothing Works Well.’


Correctional facilities are designed not for punishment but rehabilitation purposes. The system is meant to introduce socially reformed former convicts into the society. Nevertheless, according to American sociologist, Robert Martinson, this is far from the reality. In Martinson’s 1974 study “What Works?” he indicates that the premise of “reformed” prisons which would produce “reformed” convicts is based on practices that are neither transferable nor acceptable to the subjects in question. His skepticism is derived from his role in a survey of 231 studies on offender rehabilitation. In The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment: A Survey of Treatment Evaluation Studies manuscript presented criminological studies with one of its biggest challenges of the past half-century ‘What works?’ (Bean, 2003). To find the answer to this question, there is the need to understand the principle pillars that makeup Martinson’s premise.

‘Nothing Works’

Infective educational system

Martinson’s first indication of the failure to rehabilitate convicts through education was that the learning processes in prison are different from those in the outside environment. Martinson uses various studies, particularly Schnur (1948) and by Saden (1962), to indicate the failure in transferring the skills learned from prison to the outside world (Bean, 2003). The studies were the basic influences of introducing a comprehensive educational process in the correctional facilities. The first issue that he highlighted was that the studies were outdated considering they were presented before or during World War II. Additionally, the accuracy of the Saden study is questionable because the sample group was not comparable to the vast number of inmates in US prisons. Martinson’s presumptions are well-founded since there are considerable differences between law barkers before and after the world war, as a result of changes in society (Pratt, Gau, & Franklin, 2010).

In the period between 1963 and 1973 murder cases went up by 4.57% per 100,000 deaths, assault cases by 125%, Robbery 151%, and theft by 65% (Eyland and Sean 2005).The premise behind this sudden increase in crime is that it was driven by the public attitude, which in a way saw permissiveness as particularly appealing. The kind of criminals in the prison system after the Second World War cannot be compared to that of before. Indeed, the prisoners incarcerated after 1973 displayed an indication of not favoring education as a rehabilitation method. It is this premise that prompted Martinson to indicate that vocational education does not significantly affect recidivism rates. Nevertheless, he indicated that in some few cases there was evidence of rehabilitation, for instance, in instances when a trainee succeeded in finding a job related to his or her area of expertise (Alarid et al, 2008). Additionally, in such a scenario, the trainee would have a higher chance of being a successful parolee than in those whereby the released person fails to find a job that requires the use of the skills learned in prison (Spillane, 2014). In summation, it is evident that the educational system fails to make a significant influence on the inmates as it does not bear a strong  relationship with the life outside the prison environment.

Ineffective Counseling

According to Levesque (2005), the process of counseling has a significant impact on changing an individual’s behavior. However, the same might not be true in a prison environment, as explained by Martinson. The study by Guttman (1963) and Rudoff (1960) on personal counseling indicated that age, criminal background, as well as gender plays a significant role in changing the mindset of an incarcerated subject (Be Vito, 2006). According to Martinson, older members who are part of gangs or criminal organizations are harder to convince or unwilling to change their ways even behind bars than younger ones. Younger ones are easier to respond to personal counseling than older ones because they have spent less time than the older ones abiding by the doctrines of gangs. Additionally, individuals who are brought up in a crime-filled background are also harder to counsel than those who are not. Additionally, female inmates seem to better respond to counseling than males. Nevertheless, the studies indicated that the counseling progress is easily lost after the environment change from the prisons to the outside world. Additionally, other studies indicate that individuals are motivated by early release from prison to cooperate and realize the success of therapy sessions. However, in the case of group counseling, the success rates decline significantly considering the dynamics of group mentality

Effects of Sentencing

According to the study conducted by Glaser’s (1964) the lengths of sentences influence an individual’s rehabilitation probability (Bean, 2003). Individuals with significantly shorter sentences think less about rehabilitation considering they are not usually considered for early parole. On the contrary, those with longer sentences and thus a higher chance of early parole have a higher success rate of rehabilitation than those with short sentences. However, as indicated by Martinson, these individuals are usually dangerous prisoners with several counts of criminal offenses. Hence, these individuals are significantly poor candidates when it comes to changing their behavior as well as their association with other individuals such as other prisoners or prison wardens. It is for this reason that rehabilitation is hard to achieve

Probation or Parole versus Prison

Other than the effects of sentences length, it is clear that the nature of an individual’s sentence is bound to change how he or she reacts to rehabilitation. Therefore, as indicated by a British study by Wilkins (1958), it is evident that the successful patterns of rehabilitation may offer false positives. Most individuals who join the community after parole or probation might not be truly rehabilitated but only used the rehabilitation program as an early way back to the community.

‘Nothing Works Well’

From the analysis presented by Martinson of the procedure of rehabilitation, it is evident that the procedures provided are only ineffective but also impracticable. Therefore, as presented by Martinson, Stuart, and Ted, there is a need to put in place conditions that would allow the rehabilitation processes to be more effective than presently (45). The factors are referred to as ‘principles of effective intervention’.

Principles of Effective Intervention

According to Brown (2009), Martinson’s assertions are on the ineffectiveness of rehabilitation are based on conditions surrounding the prison environment; the social environment out of prison, the prisoners, as well as the victims of crime (56). Undoubtedly,  particular issues need to be considered by the parties mentioned above that need to be addressed when coming up with the rehabilitation principles for correctional facilities to increase the effectiveness of such procedures. Firstly, there is a need for all the relevant parties from voluntary personnel to prison wardens to develop an environment that resembles that of the outside world to promote the transferability of skills for rehabilitation intervention in correction facilities to work

Restorative Justice

It can be argued that Martinson’s premise is based on a lack of ineffectiveness in the current rehabilitative processes and that they are not a complete failure. Crime is perceived as a breakdown of the society as well as the human relationship about restorative justice (Zehr, Mika, & Umbreit, 1997). Hence, the rehabilitation process is based on mending the relationship between the inmates and the rest of the society through dialogue, community support, inclusion, and involvement. Essentially, the process denounces criminal behavior and enhances the significance of treating the prisoners with respect as well as likability at the same time. Consequently, criminals are reintegrated into the community in a manner that guarantees lawful behavior without the chances of reduced transferability, as indicated by Martinson. The core factor that draws aspects of the Restorative Justice philosophy is meant to offer a comprehension of the significance of engaging both victims of crime and prisoners in a manner that promotes a healthy to empower as well as support a healthy cohesion. Furthermore, restorative justice attempts to draw on the strengths of a relationship between the prisoners and the society on the basis of trust, honesty, and respect rather than dwelling on the deficit that Martinson was keen to highlight in most of his studies on rehabilitation.

Early Intervention   

Other than the use of Restorative justice, it is apparent that early intervention might aid in the rehabilitation process. One fact about the US criminal justice is that it keeps a significant amount of information about a convict’s history but does very little on rehabilitating criminal behavior early. According to Martinson’s study, therapy and well as the education system work better with younger inmates than the older ones. The correctional system may increase the effectiveness of both processes.


The criminal justice system aims to rehabilitate criminal behaviors and. As such, some processes have been developed to instigate rehabilitation. However, Robert Martinson in 1974 indicated that this procures ineffective as they give false positives. Through 231 studies, he indicated how a variety of process failed to attain the best possible results due to issues such as an ineffective education system, effect of the sentence, parole and probation, as well as ineffective counseling. Nevertheless, issues such as restorative justice as well as early intervention indicated that rehabilitation is possible. Restorative justice allows the prisoners and the victims of crimes to interact without prejudice thus allow the two groups to form a harmonized process of cohesion. Early intervention allows the criminal justice to effectively rid the minds of young people criminal behavior a factor that is proven in a variety of studies. Therefore, there is a need for governments to revisit the rehabilitation policies in the justice system, to make the process more successful, which may see to the reduction of reoffending rates.



Work cited

Alarid, L. F., Cromwell, P. F., Del, C. R. V., & Cromwell, P. F. (2008). Community-based corrections. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Bean, P. (Ed.). (2003). Crime: Critical Concepts in Sociology(Vol. 3). Psychology Press.

Brown, M. (2009). The culture of punishment: Prison, society, and spectacle. New York: New York University Press.

Eyland, S., & O’Toole, S. (2004). Corrections criminology. Annandale, N.S.W: Hawkins Press.

Levesque, R. J. R. (2005). The psychology and law of criminal justice processes: Cases and materials. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Martinson, R., Palmer, T., & Adams, S. (1976). Rehabilitation, recidivism, and research. National Council on Crime and delinquency.

Pratt, T. C., Gau, J. M., & Franklin, T. W. (2010). Key ideas in criminology and criminal justice. Sage.

Spillane, J. F. (2014). Coxsackie: The life and death of prison reform. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Vito, G. F. (2006). Criminology. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Zehr, H., Mika, H., & Umbreit, M. (1997). Restorative justice: The concept. Corrections Today59, 68-71.