“Nothing Works” in Corrections Replaced by “Nothing Works Well?”

Prison Cells


Do offender rehabilitation programs significantly reduce crime?

Fifth in a series of articles on parole and probation research and practice.

If swift but certain programs don’t work, we may be out of options.


By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. Post Master’s degree-Johns Hopkins University.


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 returns to prison, see https://www.crimeinamerica.net/2010/09/29/percent-of-released-prisoners-returning-to-incarceration/.

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, see https://www.crimeinamerica.net/2016/11/02/gps-satellite-tracking-electronic-monitoring-and-criminal-offenders/.

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.

Crime in America at http://crimeinamerica.net

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com. Media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

The full report on Project Hope is available until December 11, and for a fee after that. See http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9133.12248/full

My book: “Amazon Hot New Release”- “A Must Have Book,” Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization available at Amazon






  1. Lee Karsner says:

    We are so far behind in Corrections, we will never catch up! We don’t need evidence-based corrections programs (what is that anyway?), apparently they don’t work! Why did I say that? Look at the recidivism rate over the last 5 years and say that evidence-based corrections programs??? work! That is nothing but political hog-wash!! You know it and so do I. I have been in the field of corrections for over 38 years and in some type of law-enforcement for 40+ years now. I have seen what is truly happening! When I started, we were just having the first rush of inmates who were diagnosed with some type of mental health problem. Things with mental health have changed over time, the inmates have not! We have called the same problem 5 to 6 different labels but it is still the same. We invest money into things…. things such as evidenced-based corrections programs for inmates.. But in reality:::: We are putting money into the pockets of friends of those who are in power either at the local, state or federal levels! Yes, those who give good contracts, get kick-backs too! So as you can see, nothing has changed since the good ole’ 20’s to current time now! We still don’t get it! The public doesn’t care what happens to the inmates as long as they stay incarcerated or we don’t hurt them on purpose. They have no idea what goes on behind the stone walls!! It is very simple, we need to invest money into the root of the problem: Co-occurring substance and mental health problems. Until we start helping the 50 to 60% of those who have this problem, we are never going to get it right. We need to invest money into this and this alone!! Stop the so called evidence-based corrections programs until we stop the root of the problems!! Until this happens, we do the same things inmates do: do the same thing over and over expecting different results= Insanity!!!

    • Hi Lee: Great observations. I have roughly said the same thing for decades. The current state of correctional research is not encouraging and money needs to be pumped into community substance abuse and mental health. However, I believe that efforts focused on child abuse and neglect would be the right starting point and that much of our current problems stem from this issue. Thanks for writing. Len.


  1. […] Yes. Interventions providing programs for offenders both in and out of prison can lower recidivism. The fundamental question is the significance of the reduction. The research remains unclear as to how well these programs work. See What Works-Crime in America. […]

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