Two thirds of all felons released from state prisons are rearrested within three years, which helps to explain why U.S. imprisonment rates are so high. Another reason is the increased length of sentences, the result of "tough on crime" sentencing laws that became popular in the 1970s.
Before 1970, rehabilitation was the dominant philosophy among American criminologists. The change to a harsher regime was signaled by sociologist Robert Martinson of the City University of New York, who, in an influential article published in 1974, concluded that "with few exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism." The press expressed this idea under headlines such as "NOTHING WORKS." In light of rehabilitation's supposed failure, James Q. Wilson of Harvard University and other neoconservatives urged longer prison sentences and, occasionally, capital punishment to fight crime. This view soon became the accepted wisdom--despite Martinson's repudiation in 1979 of his earlier conclusion. In 1985 Alfred S. Regnery, the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, claimed that "rehabilitation ... has failed miserably," and in 1987 Attorney General Edwin Meese referred to the "substantially discredited theory of rehabilitation." In 1989 the Supreme Court upheld federal sentencing guidelines that removed rehabilitation from serious consideration.
This article was originally published with the title Reducing Crime.