PENOLOGY - How far does the empirical evidence support the view that ‘nothing works’ in the punishment of the offenders?

Term Paper, 2008

8 Pages, Grade: 58 Punkte = 2,5



How far does the empirical evidence support the view that ‘nothing works’ in the punishment of the offenders?

In the 1970’s the ‘nothing works’ theory emerged by the works of a number of researchers doubting the effectiveness of probation and along with it rehabilitation as a means to reduce criminal offending, amongst others Robert Martinson (1974), who determined the idea of ‘nothing works’ in the first place. In 1974, Martinson stated that “…with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts, that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.” (Sarre, 1999). This essay will try to trace out how far the empirical evidence in means of official statistics, studies and reports supports this theory.

In criminal justice, two major procedures of punishment are in use, custody and non-custodial punishments like probation and community orders as measures of rehabilitation. By analysing the re-offending rates of both of them and showing how much they differ from one another in empirical research, we will deduce how much the ‘nothing works’ phrase really describes the penal reality and to which extent this view is supported by the official data.

While taking a look at the official data, we have to keep in mind, that official statistics and further empirical evidence can very easily become subject to manipulation and thus are always to be viewed with a certain amount of precaution, as Scott warns. These statistics, studies or reports are only as valuable as their context and the circumstances under which they were commissioned. They can content errors, they do not include the ‘dark figures’, and they can be misinterpreted sometimes. Last, but not least, the crime rate is a ‘social construct’ and thus is not fully relevant and reliable (Scott, 2008, p.45). The inconsistency in criminal data already begins when collecting the data, as, due to Cavadino and Dignan, fewer than half of all crimes are reported to the police. In 2004/05 only 43 per cent of all crimes unveiled by BCS (British Crime Survey) were reported to the police, and only 32 per cent were officially recorded as crimes by the police. This means, in most cases when crimes are committed, the criminal justice agencies do not take any action at all (Cavadino & Dignan, 2007, p.2).

After the emergence of rehabilitative penal strategies, such as community-based sanctions, in Europe and the U.S.A. in the 60’s, these rehabilitative principles were strongly called into question due to the work of Martinson and other researchers in the 70’s; a development, which was followed by an increasingly punitive penal policy in the 80’s and 90’s. During the 80’s, rehabilitative measures were nearly out of use, instead the focus was put on a reduction of prison numbers. The prison policy of ‘just deserts’, which aimed to give delinquents the punishment that was in proportion to their offences, came up. This ideology, which was manifested in the Criminal Justice Act 1991, was meant as a justification for retribution (Bacik, 2005 and Cavadino & Dignan, 2007, p.7).

The famous ‘Prison works’ statement (1993) of former Home Secretary Michael Howard (Home Secretary 1993-1997) marked the beginning of a phase of the so-called ‘new punitiveness’ in the U.K. (Cavadion & Dignan, 2007, p.7). And since then, the ‘penal crisis’ in the U.K. characterized by increasing committal rates and overcrowded prisons has kept continuing persistently as the numbers published by Newburn (2007, cited in Scott, 2008, p. 148-149) clearly show: in 1994, the average daily prison population in England and Wales amounted to a number of 48,621, in 2004 they already nearly doubled to 74,658. The prison numbers for 2005 (78,284) and 2006 (80,306) are even higher (Cavadino & Dignan, 2007, p. 15). But, it seems, the peak is not reached yet, according to a publication of Penal Reform International, naming the record of a 83,000 prisoners in June 2008 (PRI, 2008). Despite these alarming figures, we still have to be aware, that custody rates are, like all official data, subject to different influences. Higher custody rates do not necessarily correspond to higher crime rates, for custody rates are dependant on the court sentencing policy. For example, when less severe offences are responded to with a custody sentence instead of a community sentence, the custody rates are influenced in a negative way without really proving a higher level of crime in society (Councell, 2003).

Reconviction rates, which partly correspond to recidivism rates – even if they underestimate them as NOMS (National Offender Management System, 2006) says - turn out to be quite similar for both custody and community penalties (Home Office, 1994). Recidivism rates also tend to be high for young offenders (75%) as well as adult ones (50%) according to Scott (2008, p.23). These findings do support the theory of ‘nothing works’. On the other hand, we have the statistics of the National Probation Service, and if we believe them, the trend concerning the re-offending rates for community services are falling sharply (by 13% this year), a number which would imply, that probation and rehabilitative measures do work and do have an effect on crime (National Probation Service, 2008). And, now we are talking about figures that contradict the ‘nothing works’ theory. Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust again speaks of ‘sky-high re-offending rates’ (Ahmed, 2008).

Looking at the overall crime rates in England and Wales, the Home Office makes us wonder how the incarceration rates can be so overwhelming high, when at the same time crime is so incredibly down. Compared with 2006/07, all BCS crime is down 10 per cent to 10.1 million crimes in 2007/08. All police recorded crime is down 9 per cent to 5.0 million crimes. The only crime that is up is the drug offences, which have noted a rise by 18 per cent from 2006/07 to 2007/08 (Home Office, 2008). So, in the first place of all we can see, that crime has dramatically fallen within one year, and secondly we witness how much the BCS crimes differ form the crimes reported to the police. However, these figures do not at all support the view that ‘nothing works’, and whatever it is, something does work right here - with the exception of drug offences, which seem not to be affected by rehabilitative interventions. The amazing thing is, keeping in mind the enormously increasing prison numbers from the 90’s on, that in 1995 crime rates peaked, but since then went down constantly (Home Office, 2008). Either crime has really been reduced, or the statistics veil reality by wrong numbers and/ or for instance by a reclassification of a crime into another crime category, which can lead to a shift in crime rates. Other factors like an economic boom in a deprived area can have a crucial effect on the reduction of crime rates, especially in property crimes (Bacik, 2005). And, vice versa, an economic slowdown or crisis can give rise to property crimes, such as burglary, theft or vehicle theft (Travis, 2008). So, this would mean, that not only penal policy changes crime rates and as a consequence, again, we have to admit that empirical research can lead our reasoning into the wrong direction.

In particular, youth crime is an increasing problem in the British society – and in most other Western communities as well - , and so, special attention needs to be laid upon this issue. Although, the decrease of the overall crime rates also includes youth crime, juvenile offenders still have the lead in the statistics. The National Statistics of June 8, 2006 attest a reduction in the re-offending rates of juvenile offenders of 3.8 per cent reduction for 2004 compared to the numbers of 1997 and a 1.4 per cent reduction compared to 2000 (Home Office, 2006). These figures confirm that penal policy works also in youth crime issues. Again, different factors influence these numbers, like May explains within a Home Office study about the role of social factors in the question of reconviction. Re-offending rates differ due to factors like age, sex, geography, social class, and also on the background of the criminal history of an offender. The data of the Home Office study show that the reconviction rate is higher (about 10 per cent on an average) for probation than for community orders, which supports the positive effect of community services. But, May also gives a hint to what he calls ‘pseudo-reconvictions’, meaning reconvictions, which are not really reconvictions, as the conviction may be recorded within the reconviction period, but is related to a crime that has been committed earlier, for instance (May, 1994). Miller also sees the recidivism rate as a figure which is difficult to measure. He gives an example for successful rehabilitation, citing a survey by Gendreau and Ross of 1988, in which 200 studies, partly deducted with mathematical methodology, have been analysed and summarized. They came to the conclusion, that in some cases a reduction in recidivism of up to 80 per cent has been accomplished (Miller, 1989). In this case, the empirical evidence absolutely denies the theory of ‘nothing works’.


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PENOLOGY - How far does the empirical evidence support the view that ‘nothing works’ in the punishment of the offenders?
University of Portsmouth  (Institute of Criminal Justice)
58 Punkte = 2,5
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Viola Abelius (Author), 2008, PENOLOGY - How far does the empirical evidence support the view that ‘nothing works’ in the punishment of the offenders?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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