Robert Martinson, 48, has been fascinated by the subject of criminal justice ever since, as an early ’60s Freedom Rider, he spent 40 days in a Southern jail. Former chairman of the Sociology Department at the City College of New York, he continues to teach criminology there as an associate professor while heading up New York’s Center for Knowledge in Criminal Justice Planning, a fact-gathering office he began and which is currently funded by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). A consultant to New York State and federal correctional agencies, Martinson shook up the criminal justice field last year with the publication of his long-delayed landmark study, The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment (Praeger Publishing), which he coauthored. Dr. Martinson, who is divorced and living on Manhattan’s West Side, recently talked with Lee Wohlfert of PEOPLE about alternate approaches that could reduce the present soaring crime rate.
In view of increasing crime, where do students of criminal justice now stand?
I’d say we are in a state of extreme intellectual crisis. Our present system is dominated by the treatment approach—the idea that you can rehabilitate a criminal and thus prevent him from returning to crime. It’s a basic notion, but it is under attack—by me and others.
How effective has the present approach to criminal justice been?
In the last 15 years U.S. crime has risen 157 percent, so much so that it is giving rise to vigilante movements in many communities. We’ve spent over $4 billion in the last eight years, through the Safe Streets Act, to no avail. Obviously something is wrong.
What is wrong?
Primarily, our correctional system is not working because of this focus on rehabilitation. Present methods simply have no effect whatever on recidivism—the tendency of criminals to return to jail. Officially 33 percent of released criminals are back in jail within three years—and I think the actual rate is double that, depending on how you measure it. After reviewing thousands of studies of rehabilitation programs between 1945 and 1967, I have concluded that the system is irrational. It is broken up into a non-system, with many little parts, the judicial, the police, the penal institutions, and with no overall plan.
Why is rehabilitation so ineffective?
The basic elements are probation and parole, both designed in the mid-19th century primarily to handle boy scout offenders, mildly criminal types, but we are now dumping serious criminals onto this system. We now have a set-up operated on the principle that some young fellow with a master’s degree in social work can actually treat 75 or more hard-bitten cons over the telephone or during a half-hour interview a month. No wonder people think it’s a farce.
What about such in-prison treatment programs as reading, psychotherapy, vocational training?
What they do is force cons to be fakes. The guy knows he must prove to the parole board he’s trying to improve himself if he is going to get out. He figures if he has to take a reading course, or psychotherapy, or get up. in-group counseling and denounce himself, his mother, his dog, anything, he’ll do it. He wants out.
Do you want to end all rehabilitation programs?
No. Some are needed in prisons to reduce idleness. I approve of reading programs, simply because I believe in 100 percent literacy. But I just don’t want taxpayers to think programs like that will reduce the crime rate in any way, shape or form.
What approach might work better?
A new form of punishment. So far we’ve relied on two kinds: prison, which is severe; and more trivial forms like probation, suspended sentence or fine. What we need is to toughen up on supervision, transform probation and parole into a kind of police function in which you might assign one field agent to each offender for a fixed period. I call it the “cop-a-con” approach.
How would “cop-a-con” work?
It’s a tough surveillance system aimed mainly at the middle range offender who is now in prison. Upon his release, the offender would not know who his “parole officer” is. All he’d know is that someone in his district has been specially assigned to see to it that he is not going to commit another crime without being caught. This agent’s job is not to change the man’s behavior; it is simply to catch him in the act of committing another crime. My proposal boils down to treating a certain group of criminal offenders as if they were irresponsible children who need to be watched. And surveillance would hang over an offender’s head like a “Damocles Sword”—the threat of certain capture, and of swift, sure punishment.
Isn’t your idea tantamount to letting criminals back out on the street?
Remember that convicted offenders already go out. They all leave prison sooner or later. But the present system doesn’t even pretend to prevent them from committing crimes. Today a probation officer has a case load of 50 to 150 cases to supervise. So what happens? While he is shuffling around the papers, they are free as a breeze, committing burglaries, robberies and various kinds of mayhem.
Would all released offenders get this close surveillance?
No. Some would be sent home with a suspended sentence to live their lives without the present ritual of bulling the agent in a monthly report and coming down to beg the agent to get a license to drive a car or to get married. But if this “suspendee” is convicted of a new crime, the law would say, now you get the full sentence for the crime you are convicted of, and this sentence will be doubled because you committed this crime while you were a suspendee. Contrariwise, you look at this next fellow, note the string of crimes and misdemeanors he has, and decide: nope. The court puts him immediately under surveillance, and off he shuffles, followed closely by his shadow.
What would you do about really violent criminals?
The Charlie Mansons? I’d lock ’em up and weld the door shut. Dangerous prisoners such as mass murderers simply cannot be permitted to walk among us. But they are a small group really, less than 10 percent of all criminal offenders. What I’m saying is simply that we should not spend billions to build new prisons to cope with the middle ranks of offenders, who commit the great majority of crime. Remember, it costs $60,000 to build one cell, and about $15,000 a year for each inmate.
Isn’t it too expensive to give each offender his own police officer?
No. I think you’ll save money on the prisons you didn’t build and the cells that you will empty. By diverting 10 percent of police forces to this surveillance restraint system, the ratio of officers to restrainees would be one-to-three. Even six-to-one would be an improvement. I’ve already recommended through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration that they spend some money and effort trying this out. The beauty of it is, you don’t have to wait years and years to see if it works. If it doesn’t, you’ll know right away.
What other alternatives do you suggest to our present system?
Let’s focus on reintegrating the offender back into society. The Department of Labor has a massive assistance program, whereby they give released offenders a measure of unemployment insurance for a few weeks. It won’t solve the crime problem, of course, but some financial support for an ex-con is certainly a more useful thing to do with money, and it has been proved this does have an effect on recidivism.
Wouldn’t we be better to simply have more police?
You mean triple the police? I for one don’t want to live in a society where there are four or five times the number of police running around.
What makes you think “cop-a-con” would work?
I can’t guarantee it’ll work any better, but it seems reasonable to try. At least it keeps the offender in the community and out of jail, where he could become a career criminal. And in terms of the public, at least it will gain a measure of protection. Instead of letting an offender get away with 15 crimes, with a surveillance agent on his back he’ll get caught, if not the first time, at least the second.
What are the real prospects that in the long run we can reduce the crime rate?
There is no Utopia, but it’s reasonable to try to reduce our crime rate to the level of pre-World War II, a liveable level. I have a good indicator of what that is myself: when people can walk the streets at night openly and not in a state of terror. This fear has spread to the suburbs, but the biggest fear is in the cities, especially among the poor and black, who cannot protect themselves as the upper middle class can. I think we will be nearly there when people aren’t afraid to go out, vote, enjoy community life, participate in city meetings and the democratic society. Until my neighbors can leave their homes unafraid at 10:30 at night, I’m not satisfied.