Corrections, Rehabilitation and Criminal Justice in the United States: 1970-Present

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Dr. Betsy Matthews discusses the history of rehabilitation in the second installment of this series.

Rehabilitation formed the basis of correctional practice until the early 1970s when it was derailed with the release of a report by Robert Martinson. After an exhaustive review of correctional programs, Martinson concluded that the rehabilitative efforts had no appreciable effect on recidivism.

Had this report been released at a different time, it may have gone unnoticed. But the time was right for a report that would dismantle dismantle our justice system. Our country had just experienced one of the most tumultuous decades of its history. Amidst Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement and the Attica Prison Riots, there was an extreme distrust in our government.

Conservatives blamed increased drug use and a lenient justice system for turning the country’s morals upside down – for our youth being out of control. They believed that our efforts at rehabilitation only coddled criminals and reinforced their behavior. They called for harsher, more punitive sentences.

Liberals believed that the broad discretion given to government to dispense individualized treatment had contributed to racism and filled our prisons with poor minorities. They pushed for determinate sentences that would minimize judicial and parole board discretion and permit the equitable distribution of justice.

These perspectives converged into a crime control model that supported tough punitive policies. Long determinate mandatory sentences were the cornerstones of this new model of justice. By the end of the twentieth century, we secured the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Crowded facilities strengthened the criminal subculture that our earliest prisons fought to constrain. Prisons were soon devoid of any sign of rehabilitation.

Our noncustodial sanctions didn’t fare much better. Probation and parole officers shifted from counselors to enforcers. They collected urine for drug tests, hooked people up to electron monitoring units and collected supervision fees. Persons on parole lived under tight scrutiny, fearing what seemed to be inevitable – their return to prison.

There seemed to be no end to the amount of money governments were willing to spend on these tough crime policies. But were they worth the cost?  The best research suggests that a doubling of the prison population and an exponential increase in correctional expenditures reduced crime by 10 to 20 percent. Is this a sufficient payoff? Might we have achieved the same reduction in crime through other, more humane means?

And what about the social costs of get-tough policies? With one in every three black males facing imprisonment, mass incarceration policies have been called “the new Jim Crow.” Ex-inmates are denied employment, access to public benefits and the right to vote. Urban communities and the families within suffer as people cycle in and out of prison.

There are some indications that the tide is turning. State and federal governments have repealed mandatory penalties for crack cocaine and other drug offenses that disproportionately impact minority population. Several states have passed legislation that authorizes alternatives to prison for drug offenders and restricts the use of prison as a response to probation and parole violations. And for the first time in decades the prison population has declined.

Does this signal the end of the get-tough era?  A close examination of correctional practice suggests that recent trends are driven more by fiscal concerns than a shift in correctional ideology. Despite a push for evidence-based practices, we are pretty wedded to deterrent-based strategies. A genuine shift toward rehabilitation would likely threaten the corrections industrial complex that has emerged in support of deterrents and control-oriented tactics. Are people going to let that happen?

We have to be careful about overselling rehabilitation as a cheaper alternative to prisons. Rehabilitation goes beyond something that happens by chance or the mere passage of time. Effective programs require a significant investment of resources.

Rehabilitation done poorly can be just as coercive and harmful as the punitive policies we’ve experienced. Despite these concerns, I’m cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead on the correctional landscape. The decriminalization of marijuana alone will divert thousands of people from jails and prisons. And recent justice reinvestment initiatives are encouraging states to trade harsh prison sentences for community and evidence-based practices associated with desistance from crime. We still have a lot to learn about how to promote behavioral change, but I for one am feeling better about our chances.

EKU Online instructor Dr. Betsy Matthews discusses the history of rehabilitation strategies and other topics in the EKU Online Corrections program. EKU faculty, instructional designers and staff are committed to creating dynamic material that addresses different learning styles and positions students for success.

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View the first installment of this lesson, “Corrections, Rehabilitation and Criminal Justice in the United States: 1800-1970.

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