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“Nothing Works” in Corrections Replaced by “Nothing Works Well?”
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 02/06/2017

Prison-cells This article was prompted by new research suggesting that Project HOPE and similar swift and certain programs do not have an impact on offender recidivism. The HOPE results are placed in a larger context in the debate on offender rehabilitation programs.

A fuller summation and observations of the Project HOPE research will be offered soon.

From The Crime Report

A forthcoming study to be published in Criminology & Public Policy concludes that neither Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (Hawaii HOPE) program, nor the Swift, Certain and Fair (SCF) model of supervision achieved significant reductions in re-arrests of “moderate to high-risk probationers,” compared to standard probation programs.

In the study, Outcome Findings from the HOPE Demonstration Field Experiment, the authors randomly assigned more than 1,500 probationers to normal probation supervision or to a program modeled on HOPE, called the Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, that emphasizes close monitoring, frequent drug testing, and swift and certain punishment for probation violations. They found no real difference in outcomes. See http://thecrimereport.org.

Nothing Works

Robert Martinson was an American sociologist, whose 1974 study “What Works?” concerning the shortcomings of existing prisoner rehabilitation programs, was highly influential, creating what became known as the “nothing works” doctrine. His later studies were more optimistic, but less influential.

Martinson’s “Nothing Works” hypothesis had a dramatic influence on crime policy. It suggests that if nothing works as to offender rehabilitation, then the only alternative is incarceration.

Since Martinson

Since Martinson, the federal criminal justice system has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in programs and ideologies designed to lower rates of recidivism. The bottom line of that investment is that some programs do lower rates of offenders returning to the criminal justice system based on additional arrests, convictions, and returns to prison.

When they work, however, the results are generally marginal, averaging ten percent or less. The vast majority of offenders are unaffected.

For an overview of the success of correctional and reentry programs, see http://www.crimesolutions.gov/.

Definitive Statement

I cannot offer a provable, definitive statement suggesting that when programs work, they do not work well. I’m not sure I read every evaluation.

But I have spent a professional lifetime reading reports from the criminological community on rehabilitation programs, and discussing those results with researchers in public and private forums. I’m unaware of empiricists who suggest that treatment programs routinely produce results that exceed a ten percent reduction in recidivism. This may be confusing to readers because some programs have claimed up to fifty percent reductions in recidivism; if true, they would be eligible for the Nobel Prize.

There are a few programs that exceed ten percent reductions, and some that show increases, not decreases in recidivism. Some show no effect.

The bottom line is that “nothing works” seems to be replaced by “nothing works well.”

Swift and Certain Discredited?

I was writing an article suggesting that Project Hope and GPS (satellite tracking) of offenders offered the best track record as to reductions in recidivism.

The premise is that programs that hold offenders accountable for their actions and provided swift and certain responses to misbehavior hold a better research base of results than programs mentoring to the social, mental health and employment needs of offenders.

With new doubt being raised about Project Hope, a major component of the “swift and certain” philosophy seems discredited.


If we can’t program our way out of recidivism and crime, then we are either stuck with more incarceration and the tax dollars that go with it, or we are going to have to release inmates to make room for the truly dangerous.

Note that the vast majority of the current state inmate population are violent, have violent histories, or are repeat offenders.

But the criminological community cannot and will not accept the premise that locking more people up is the only alternative to post-adjudication crime control. They will suggest that we have to make programming work. It needs to be funded and evaluated to gain maximum effectiveness.

They will also suggest that programs mentoring to the social, mental health and employment needs of offenders with sanctions for misbehavior are reducing recidivism, and if those reductions are producing marginal results, they are working nevertheless.

A five percent reduction in recidivism for seven million people in the American correctional system carries a powerful fiscal and criminological impact, they state. We have a base. We simply need to do a better job.

What If?

What if every inmate within the federal or state prison systems had access to comprehensive substance abuse or mental health treatment?

They all need educational programs. They need to know how to read and write proficiently. They need GED’s or high school diplomas. If job-related college courses are necessary, so be it.

Every inmate needs the job skills necessary to find meaningful employment quickly. If that means that they need to create their own businesses, do it. Having someone skilled in business management and lawn care is a thousand times better than hanging out on the corner every night.

Either we train offenders in productive living, or our crime and tax burdens continue unchecked.

Either we are going to get real about solving a problem that affects all Americans, or pay the price of higher crime and taxes.

Moving Beyond Marginal

But at the moment, the track record of success seems marginal. Not saying that seems disingenuous.

If we are going to convince Americans to provide additional funding for rehabilitation programs, we need to offer them some hope, a roadmap, a literature based consensus. But the results need to be substantial if we want to move beyond incarceration. That effort is the great criminological undertaking of our time.

Reprinted with permission from http://crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


  1. CognitiveEmergenceProgram on 02/01/2017:

    The old saying "if they knew better, they would do better" has some validity still. Rules and regulations establish perimeters for acceptable choices and must be followed with very little, if any, exceptions. Until prisoners can "change" withing their thinking processes, recidivism will continue to be on the increase, no matter how much money is spent on "rehabilitation". The process to change the way inmates and others think and make decisions is call Neurogenesis. By interacting with challenging cognitively designed tasks, the hippocampus of the brain gives birth to new neurons...each capable to making 30,000 new neuronal connections throughout the brain as guided by the hippocampus. As the new connections are made, they connect parts of the brain to begin functioning normally. It's like having a newly paved street in an area that was not accessible to traffic before. Over time, these new pathways can become so robust its like having a super highway, speeding up the processing of meaningful information, making the brain more capable of learning new behaviors, making better choices, improving short and long term memory...thinking before acting with better impulse control. To prove this, at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, OK, where some 1,500 female inmates are incarcerated, the Cognitive Emergence Program helped some 600+ inmates over the past 10 years. 261 of those who completed the computerized program were released over the past 5 years. Of these, only 9 have re-offended. In their exit interviews, the say "Dr. John, I don't need that stuff anymore. I think differently." And, they do. This information is documented on the cognitive testing (pre & post) called RBANS (Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status). Until our correctional centers can make cognitive & behavioral changes in the way inmates process information and make decisions, we will always be having to deal with the problem of recidivism rates which are extremely expensive. If you are interested to know more about the Cognitive Emergence Program, contact me at: Cognitive Rehabilitation, L.L.C., 2328 S. Harvey Ave., Oklahoma City, OK 73109 405-706-6950 or e-mail: teletherapy@gmail.com

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