Science in Christian Perspective



A Brief History of the Failure of
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From: PSCF 38 (March 1986): 27-37

Until the middle 1800's, most theories of corrections were based on the Judeo-Christian ethic which stressed that, unless culturally modified, people were inclined toward short-term gain, hedonistic goals and avoidance of work, pain, and most all other non-pleasurable activities. For this reason Western society was less concerned with rehabilitation than with the rule of just retribution, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This rule was given to limit excess punishment, a situation common in the ancient world.

Since that time, numerous types of reform systems have been tried, including the replacement of corporal punishment by imprisonment, and, later, as a supplement to prison confinement, the addition of work programs, psychotherapy, education, vocational training and other efforts at rehabilitation. The current conclusion in corrections is that, so far, rehabilitation has been an elusive goal with, at best, extremely limited success. From a theological perspective, as long as sin exists, crime will curse us in spite of the best efforts of human social engineers.

A major perennial concern of all theistic religions has been with "sin," defined as the act of falling short of the law of God and just human laws (McHugh, 1978). In America, concern with crime began shortly after the colonists landed. Evil (of which crime is one manifestation) was believed by them to have been inherent in humankind since the sin of Adam, a view which heavily reflected their Judeo-Christian heritage (Scott, 1979). Behavior such as sexual misconduct, disrespect for parents, blasphemy, et cetera, was taken as evidence that "the offender was destined to be a public menace and a damn sinner" (Rothman, 1971:15-16). The early colonists, having a Calvinistic background, believed not only that the tendency to sin is inherent but that people cannot easily be shaped into desirable types. They would thus disagree with the saying, "Give me a child from birth to six, and I will make him anything you want him to be-beggar, saint, priest, thief, pauper, or rich man." Training can temper the temptations of the flesh, they felt, but evil impulses can never be totally eliminated, only controlled. Therefore, as Empy noted (1982:55):

Thus the colonists were not bothered by a strong impulse to rehabilitate sinners once they had sinned. Rather their transgressions demanded retribution, If offenders were allowed to escape, others would be implicated in their crimes, and God would be displeased.

The punishment the colonists gave convicted offenders varied widely. It included public ridicule, the stock and pillory, banishment from the community, fines, permanent physical branding (such as "T" for thief, "B" for blasphemy, or "A" for adultery), and even death. The offenses that could be punished by the death penalty ranged from sodomy to horse stealing and arson. Since reform was seen as an elusive goal, the concern was mostly for both justice and the protection of the community from the offender. Thus, the colonists were not shy about practicing capital punishment. Until the early 1800's, confinement was used primarily to constrain offenders until the trial date (only a short time then), and was not necessarily viewed as punishment (Johnston, 1973). Not until the Jacksonian era did institutionalization become "the preferred solution to the problems of poverty, crime, delinquency and insanity" (Goldfarb, 1976:10). This was the state of corrections in the first century of America.

The Enlightenment

The so-called enlightenment changed all this. The previously held views were seen increasingly as backward, inhuman and pessimistic. The enlightenment stressed the possibility of virtually unlimited human progress, actually to "unimagined heights;" at the least, it was confidently felt that a major level of improvement was fully possible. The cornerstone of this era was an optimism which appeared to be not only more scientific, but also a reflection of the spirit of humanistic movements then thriving in Europe and elsewhere. This new view, many argued, was also more in harmony with the Scriptures. Many Bible passages were reinterpreted or "discovered" to support this new view. Some advocates of positivism also stressed that the reformation of at least some criminals was not only possible, but a Christian goal (McHugh, 1978). In addition, many stressed that America's destiny (and remarkable success) was itself of divine origin (Walton, 1975).

An early reformer, Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), an Italian criminologist inspired by both Voltaire's and Montesquieu's ideas, proposed a series of reforms designed to make the treatment of law violaters, "more equitable, more rational, and more humane" (Monachesi, 1960). Other reformers elaborated on these ideas. The result was that, in the 19th century, criminal codes were rewritten, and due process was given greater importance. As new explanations for deviant behavior emerged, Americans also began to reject the older colonial notions that crime and sin were synonymous, and that law breaking was the result of inborn tendencies and the success of the devil's temptations (Empy, 1982:58).

The reformers were now most concerned with the external forces that shape the personality-especially the family and the child's early experiences. Later, Freud and other researchers contributed to this sentiment and, as a result, "such theological conceptions of innate sin were losing their currency. In their stead, the belief grew that deviancy could be traced back to experiences in early childhood" (Empy, 1982:58-59). Community corruption was seen more and more as an important factor (Ryan, 1971). The criminal was not acting out his own uncontrolled evil desires, but was a victim of evil communities, doing only what he was 11 taught" or had learned from his culture. Cities were often lambasted as the culprit in the crime waves America experienced (Shaw and McKay, 1942). Numerous volumes supporting this thesis were published, such as Evils of the Cities (1905) by the famous preacher T. DeWitt Talmadge, D.D. Criminal behavior, it was now felt, could be effectively rooted out. Young children in danger of becoming criminals could be successfully steered away from "the wrong path. " As the Scriptures stress, "Raise up a boy according to the way of righteousness, and when be grows old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6).

Although much good could be achieved by raising children in the proper way, there was still the problem of what to do with those who were already hardened adult criminals. Cutting off hands, execution, and other


Jerry Bergman holds a Bachelor's degree with the equivalent of a major in Psychology, Sociology, Education, and Biology, a Master's degree in Education and Psychology, a second Master's in Social Psychology and Corrections and a Doctorate in Evaluation and Research and Psychology, all from Wayne State University in Detroit. He is currently completing his second Doctorate in Sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His last academic position was as Associate Professor of Psychology at Spring Arbor College in Spring Arbor, Michigan. He has over 300 publications, including 20 books, monographs and book chapters.

techniques used in Asia and elsewhere were seen as inappropriate in America, especially since the criminal was viewed increasingly more as a "victim of an evil world" than as a person who is innately bad and acting mostly on selfish inclinations. Primarily because of Quaker influence, the concern shifted from "punishing offenders" to "reforming errant misguided souls. " This concern prompted many cities to build appropriately named "reform schools" which stressed change and growth in the spiritual, mental, and skill areas. For adults, "penitentiaries" were constructed for the purpose of criminals doing "penance" or "meditating on their errors" in order to achieve, through Scripture study and prayer, a mending of one's evil ways. They concluded that the process of reform required primarily spiritual growth. The first penitentiary began in about 1790 when the old Walnut Street jail was converted by the Quakers into a long-term place of confinement (McKelvey, 1968). They felt the most humanitarian way of reformation was segregation of offenders from all corruptive influences, including other inmates. Isolation would also help them recognize their errant life, repent, and embark on a new course (Empy, 1982). To better achieve this end, in 1816 a prison was built in Auburn, New York, with individual cells.

This striking design with its individual cells dominated prison construction for nearly a century. Its purpose was not revenge, but deterrence and rebabilitation (actually habilitation in that most of the offenders had never been adjusted in the first place, thus they could not be rehabilitated or readjusted to society). The inmates were kept busy, both in mind and body, with study, meditation, reading and physical labor. Organized discipline and high moral values were stressed. Many prisons required silence during meals, marched prisoners from cell to cell in single rows, and demanded strict obedience to the many rigid rules which regulated even minor details of conduct. The solution to crime was believed to be intervention and long-term institutional confinement, a conclusion based on the 11 scientific theories" of the time (Empy, 1982:168).

It soon became apparent that such institutions did not achieve the success expected. By the late 1800's it was obvious that the serious criticisms of the system which often surfaced were partially valid. Prisons were increasingly branded as failures. The former panacea was now labeled "schools of crime" and "breeding houses of vice;- it has been attacked almost non-stop for the last century (Triston, 1938). These institutions, many claimed, were causing those in their care to become "more criminal than ever" (Bremner, 1970:1:696-697).

The movement to "deinstitutionalize," starting with children and later extending to adults, was the next panacea. A good example was that, after about 1850, thousands of children were sent from large city reform schools to live and work with selected "Christian" farm families to insure proper moral instruction and work/ habit training (Scull, 1977).

The reassessment of the failures of the prison system and reformation ideology prompted a variety of solutions. These were based on rationales ranging from that of those who concluded that lawbreakers were born, not made (and were thus irreformable) to churchmen who felt that crime was solely the result of willful desires to commit sin. Most, though, felt that the failure of the reformation was a result of poor execution of the ideal, rather than of fallacies in the reformers' concepts. Thus they favored using the same philosophy, but trying new and more extensive techniques.

In 1870 the Cincinnati Prison Congress met to draft reforms of the earlier reforms. These included implementing programs which were less punitive, less degrading (the degradation, they felt, destroyed positive, constructive impulses and aspirations, crushing the weak and irritating the strong), and which motivated by means of effective rewards. Cultivating one's selfrespect, providing inmates with honorable labor, and teaching them self-control in a positive sense, they felt, should govern institutional life (Henderson, 1910:3963). The penal philosophy was basically valid, the Congress concluded; it bad failed only because its actual implementation and various nuances bad been wrong.

Juvenile Reform

The system was altered even more for juveniles. The state was now more concerned with protecting the nurturance rights of all children-delinquent, dependent, or neglected-and with habilitating all who needed help or treatment, not just those defined as delinquent (Empy, 1982:67). The goal was to help the child ameliorate whatever problem was of concern, and not to determine whether the child was guilty or innocent of any specific offense. The new course was to intervene, not as a harsh and punitive monitor of evil conduct, but as a thoughtful, kind, "super-parent" ideal. The positivist school, which held that solutions to behavioral problems could be developed by utilizing the scientific method to delineate the causes of (and thus the remedy for) misbehavior, was still influential. Although disappointment with this approach was minimal at first, it grew steadily until by the 1970's there was an almost total abandonment of any hope of the goal of widespread general habilitation even though dozens of innovative modifications of the system bad been tried.

Biological Theories

Many biological theories were also explored, and some of these still have supporters. Lombroso (1911) was one of the first modern criminologists to propose that criminals are biologically- predisposed atavistic throwbacks, degenerates genetically more similar to a primitive stage of human evolutionary development. They behave like animals because that is what they are. They leap backwards twenty thousand or more years in a single generation to a previous stage of evolutionary development. This theory was found to be false and racist; it was finally laid to rest by Goring (1913). 

Another theory was that criminals were mentally defective. A number of early criminologists even proposed using I.Q. tests to evaluate children in public schools to identify "potential criminals." In 1911 Goddard (1970:564) predicted that this method could largely solve the problem of delinquency.

The eugenics movement likewise advocated its theories of criminal causality. This "science" was concerned with improving the quality of the human race by controlling breeding. Hooton (1939:309), a Harvard biologist, wrote that "it follows that the elimination of crime can be affected only by extirpation of the physically and morally unfit; or by their complete segregation in a socially aseptic environment." Instead of permitting evolution to operate in a hit-or-miss fashion, scientists could intelligently guide it to breed a 11 superior race 11 of morally upright persons totally void of criminal impulses. As many eugenicists concluded, if criminality were genetically controlled, one would simply have to prevent known criminals from reproducing. One could thereby eventually breed out criminal tendencies much as one breeds out certain traits in sheep or cows.

In harmony with these objectives, between 1907 and 1937, 31 states passed laws permitting the sterilization of a variety of physical and mental "defectives" (McCaghy, 1976:20). An estimated 70,000 or more Americans were sterilized as a result of the eugenics movement (McCaghy, 1976:21). It was most fully embraced and practiced in Nazi Germany, and the results were so catastrophic that today any mention of eugenics as a serious solution to crime is anathema. Eugenics was actually a major, if not the major, driving force behind the Nazi war machine and the holocaust (Tenenbaum, 1956).

Later, Sheldon (1954) developed an elaborate system of somatotypes, even concluding that one could predict criminal tendencies by evaluating body types. The muscular or mesomorphic type, he concluded, was the most likely to become criminal.

Biological theories, such as sociobiology, are still being proposed; and, although mixed evidence to support them exists, it is hard for them to get a wide hearing (Wilson, 1978). This is partly because of the past tragic consequences of the biological theories.

Psychological Theories

The psychologists too, developed theories about the causes of crime. Freud believed that every child possessed a set of anti-social criminal instincts, "the savage and evil impulses of mankind , which he called the id. This id was controlled by the superego, the conscious mind which was a product of socialization. Criminals were simply people who did not develop a sufficiently powerful, controlling superego. The solution was to habilitate them by using psychotherapy, both to deal with traumatic past experiences and to reconstruct a superego sufficient to control the id's unsocialized impulses. Other Freudians concluded that criminal behavior is often a manifestation of a neurotic need for punishment from guilt over some unconscious socially unacceptable drive, such as an unresolved Oedipus complex. The solution the criminal opts for is to commit a criminal act, to get caught, and then be punished; the punishment helps to expiate the person's immense sense of guilt. Society's solution is psychotherapy, which helps to bring the guilt from the unconscious to the conscious where it can be effectively dealt with, negating the person's need to respond to problems via criminality.

As Empy (1982:75) stressed, this theory allowed that "Judges should not sentence [criminals] ... according to the crime they committed but according to the diagnosis of their ills by psychological experts." Criminals, in other words, were not wicked but sick. The anti-social acts that they committed were only the symptoms of the disease. The disease must be cured, requiring professional counseling, psychotherapy and medical care. A growing professionalism among those who worked with criminals resulted. Social work rehabilitative programs proliferated. Prison, probation and parole were seen more as psychotherapy agents than a means of punishment. And Empy notes (1982:176) that 11 the treatment model suggested by psychodynamic theory has remained the standard to which most courts and correctional agencies have aspired until very recently." Psychotherapy is a common court order for convicted offenders, especially for those involved in certain violent, aggressive, sexual, or drug offenses. Under this model, those who committed property offenses were viewed as more "normal" than virtually all other offenders, including those who used alcohol, murdered, maimed, or wrote bad checks.

Ironically, even though the empirical evidence of the effect of psychotherapy in dealing with criminals indicates that it is largely ineffective, it has produced more studies with positive results than almost any other correctional intervention program (Martinson, 1974, 1976). The successes, though, are so few that psycbotherapy is viewed more as a luxury to help ease the strain of prison life than as a habilitative tool.

Personality Theory

Personality theory has also joined the foray of etiological hypotheses concerning criminality. Criminals, in this view, were seen mostly as asocial persons having personality problems. The terms "criminal personality," "psychopath," "sociopath," et cetera, were used as if they represented definable diseases or psychological conditions with a clear etiology. Surveys of the predictability of personality theories, first by Sebuessler and Cressey (1950) and then later by many others (Waldo and Dinitz, 1967; Tennenbaum, 1977; etc.) found that, with the possible exception of certain sex crimes and homicide, there is little or no relationship between specific personality traits and criminal tendencies. Empy (1982:177) concluded, "there is little evidence that [personality abnormality] is related ... to law violation in general." There are clearly more personality differences within a group of criminals than between criminals and noncriminals. Thus Empy held (1982:180) that the "tendency to equate personality abnormality with [criminal] behavior has not been confirmed by empirical evidence." Lacking empirical evidence, this theory, like most others before it, has largely been abandoned.

Newer Sociological Theories

Another popular sociological theory was that of cultural deviance, which concluded that deviance was the result of behaving in accordance with the values and norms of one's particular group. One learns to be a criminal because one's friends, significant others, relatives, et cetera, are criminals. In other words, criminals are not psychologically abnormal or sociopaths, but simply normal people who, by associating with criminals, learn to be criminals the same way that an apprentice learns how to be a carpenter or a German child learns to speak German (Sutherland, 1939).

Sociologists traditionally have rejected the position that delinquents were either biologically or psychologically maladjusted or abnormal in any way at all. They have gloated over the fact that the weight of empirical evidence seems to be on their side. Research by Shaw and McKay (1942) found that delinquency consistently tended to be concentrated in particular areas of the city, seemingly supporting the sociological position. Unfortunately 6 learning theorists, when the residents moved out, crime levels did not tend to move with them! The new residents seemed to "take over" the high level of delinquency which remained a rather permanent feature of the neighborhood. These areas were often adjacent to the central business district and located around the railroads and stockyards, typically the least desirable part of the city, often the slums. This finding seemed to indicate that delinquents were not only not psychologically maladjusted or biologically deformed, nor did they learn to become "criminals" in a permanent sense, but simply reflected the existing social environment that surrounded them. They concluded that certain clear-cut social conditions caused high levels of crime, namely physical deterioration, poverty, racial and ethnic segregation and a high level of all social problems, including social disorder, truancy, infant mortality, and mental disease. Those who successfully dealt with these problems often moved to other "better" areas of the city. Thus, since crime is largely a result of social ills, the solution is to solve social problems. One reduces crime less by dealing with criminals than with the causes of crime.

They further found that criminality was transmitted from one generation to the next; i.e., the older boys taught the younger ones how to steal, and then, when they became "professionals," they in turn instructed the next generation in the ways of crime. The neophytes bragged about their criminality, admired the "big shot criminals," such as bank robbers and the like, and looked forward to becoming like them. Demoralized and disorganized neighborhoods filled with poverty caused children to seek success where they believed they could find it. They learned that they could find it in criminality, and continued to find it there as they grew older. The legitimate doors to success were closed to them, so they attempted to achieve in their society by the only means they knew, by crime. This theory was developed by Merton (1938), and became one of the most often quoted and discussed sociological theories ever (McCaghy, 1976). Accordingly, criminals are normal people who are socialized in a different way than noncriminals, thus reflecting their social environment. The solution is to change the environment, producing resocialization by introducing the norms and values of straight society and devaluing the values of criminal society. Habilitation is achieved primarily by learning the new values and skills which enable one to make an honest, rewarding living.

Contra-Culture Theories

Various aspects of the Shaw and McKay theory were repeatedly criticized and largely replaced by the contra-culture theory of crime (Miller,
1958). Further investigation revealed that the high crime areas were not so much disorganized as organized differently than the suburbs. Nor were most persons in these areas criminals; only a small number were. Criminal groups are subcultures, highly organized worlds that are very similar to the dominant culture except that they advocate different values in select areas of conduct (Yinger, 1977). These differences are only partially a response to poverty, discrimination, and their social world. Family life is dominated by the female, and males and females lead relatively separate lives. Thus criminals are not average Americans in a social sense; they are socialized into a culture different from the dominant one, a culture which responds to their specific social conditions. The focal concerns of the middle class are athletic, academic, and social successes, but those of the lower class are smartness, toughness, trouble, fate and autonomy. The values of each class tend to attract the most capable males in each community.

The solution to crime, according to this theory, is to educate, resocialize, and reculturalize the members of this contra-culture with the middle class values. Habilitation thus consists of convincing them that their contra-culture values are not the key to success, i.e., do not work for most persons and in the long run are suicidal for society. Aside from those relatively few who did grow out of crime, most were found to be hard to convince, in spite of the best efforts of reformers. They were thus called "hardened criminals," a term which includes most adult felony offenders.

Later research, though, found that this so-called contra-culture" existed more in sociology books than in society; i.e., even lower class boys who committed criminal acts often knew that they were doing wrongas did their parents and friends. A major finding that challenged this theory, as with the Shaw and McKay theory, was that crime was far higher in the noncontra-culture class than previously realized, and that most persons actually living in the contra-culture milieu did not commit major crime (Quinney, 1970). Thus, as time went on, these sociological theories had to undergo more and more modification, until there was little left of them as comprehensive theories of crime causality.

Environmental Theories

The theory that "bad associations spoil moral babits" dates back to pre-Biblical writings. It has long been observed that delinquents were raised from backgrounds of social and economic deprivation-yet most youths in this background do not become hard-core delinquents. Furthermore, research confirmed the view that far more delinquency existed in the middle and upper middle classes than previously imagined (Vaz,
1967). The difference was not so much in the amount of delinquency as in the type and in the community response to lower versus middle class delinquency (Chambliss, 1973). Much of middle class delinquency was hidden, and often arrests were dismissed by the court or deals made between the parents, police, judges, and so forth (Vaz, 1967). Middle class delinquents were also less likely to be arrested, even after being caught in a criminal act. Empy (1982:11) quoted numerous studies which consistently found that "at least nine out of ten illegal acts go undetected or unacted upon by anyone in authority."

A very small percent of the young persons who involve themselves in juvenile delinquency become adult criminals. Most young persons engage in some illegal acts (drinking, vandalism, etc.), but few involve themselves in a high level of criminal behavior as adults. These are the groups that we need to be concerned with and understand. They are far more difficult to explain in terms of childhood environment factors. Why do most youths socialized in a criminal environment "grow out" of crime? Arrest records peak at age 16 and then decline at 17 for whites and slightly later for blacks. By age 19, when most people are working or in college full time, it is fairly low. This prodigal son phenomenon can be understood in terms of both psychological and social factors.

Further, as Empy (1982:84) notes, juveniles are among the most criminal segments of the population ... more likely to be arrested for serious property crimes, although a small group of chronic offenders may be accounting for a highly disproportionate portion of all arrests." This criminality of the young "runs counter to the assumption that [modern] enlightened methods of child raising and the invention of the juvenile court protect children from involvement in the debaucheries, misdeeds, and crimes of adults." In view of this fact, most child rearing fads have questionable efficiency. In spite of the f act that it is dif f icult to f ind a clear relationship between specific environments and child rearing techniques, most persons assume that a strong relationship exists.

Other Attempts at Criminal Reformation

During the last century, other schools of criminology also came and went, and most in time abandoned the idea of retribution. The classical school stressed that lawbreaking is due to a free rational decision to violate the law in pursuit of personal satisfaction. The solution, said this school of thought, was simply to make the penalties so stiff that crime was not worth it. The purpose of the penalties was not punishment or retribution, but solely deterrence. The problem with this position is that much crime is not rational.

This position was also contradicted by many positivistic environmentalist criminologists-a leading school for over a century and a half which stressed that human behavior is learned. A criminal learns to be such, but not consciously as a result of a rational decision. The solution, therefore, is reeducation, or learning not to be a criminal. Punishment, therefore, is at best irrelevant but possibly harmful. Further, what one learns is only what one's environment teaches one. As the physician Henry Maudsley (quoted in Empy, 1982:43) stated, "Criminals go criminal, as the insane go mad, because they cannot help it." Poor socialization, poverty, ignorance, discrimination, social disorganization, and emotional conflicts were all believed to cause criminal behavior. The only hope for controlling anti-social behavior was to discover and treat its cause, the same solution as for physical or mental sickness. This philosophy is called the medical model for this reason.

Another school, control theory, emphasizes that people conform because they develop various attachments to society and do not want to do anything that may jeopardize their social affiliations. A man who has a good job and -a loving wife and children will not jeopardize losing or alienating their affections by robbing banks or engaging in petty criminal acts. One wishes to please those to whom one is attached, including one's parents, relatives, teachers, and one's nation itself. One would obviously not do something that may, if discovered, displease any of these significant others. People become delinquent because they have no one to worry about displeasing, thus there are no brakes on their violent or criminal behavior.

Lack of learned self-control as a cause of criminality is also examined in this school. Inability to exercise control over one's criminal drives is a result either of being inherently less capable of doing so or, more likely, because one was not trained to do so.

The Failure of the Move from Punishment to Science

As Empy
(1982:149) summarizes, the modern history of corrections is basically a "gradual awakening of western civilization from the stagnation of the middle ages [which finds] strong parallels ... between the invention and growth of the juvenile court and the invention and growth of modern science." The result, which began in the 1800's and continued to the 1960's, is called rehabilitation. Criminals, like a broken refrigerator, merely need to be repaired. Kicking the refrigerator is not an appropriate response to its malfunction. Likewise, punishing the child is an inappropriate response to misbehavior. Punishment, therefore, became less and less important in the correctional system. The only punishment, if it can be considered that, is "confinement" within the prison walls. Prisons are miniature cities which are often not much more punishing than military schools or other total institutions that are not designed to punish. Yet, the United States experience of over 200 years in trying to "repair the child" has produced almost total failure. We now suffer from one of the highest crime rates in the world, and have one of the highest percentages of citizens in prison of any nation (Sherman and Hawkins, 1981). As Doleschal (1977:52) notes, "No other country in the world imprisons as great a proportion of their [population) as we do."

The failed prison reform of the 1960's, as well as the high recidivist rate-often as high as 70% in long term follow-up studies-has again caused widespread calls for more radical reform. In 1966, the New York State Governor's Special Committee on Criminal Offenders organized a research project to thoroughly evaluate all empirical studies in corrections. By 1970 the completed project had examined all research in the English language published from 1945 to 1967. Studies which had flawed research methodology or did not meet acceptable scientific criteria were not reviewed. The overall conclusions, "with few and isolated exceptions," were that rehabilitative efforts thus reported so far "have had no appreciable effect on recidivism" (Martinson, 1974:25). After examining hundreds of programs, it was found "none of them ... made any difference in recidivism rates (1974:25). Of course, Martinson (1974:49) admitted "it is just possible that some of our treatment programs are working to some extent, but that our research is so bad that it is incapable of telling. " And every program that supporters claimed to 11 work" produced only small differences compared to control groups, hardly making a dent in crime. The follow-up report (Martinson et al., 1976:25) concluded that "studies that have been done since our surveys were completed do not present any major grounds for altering [the] ... original conclusion."

This study and several others put the last nail in the habilitation coffin. The new word was "nothing works. " Theologically speaking the root of the problem is sin, and thus social programs, while they can solve some problems, are limited in effect (Lipton, 1975).

A Return to Retribution

Essentially, prior to the 19th century, societies efforts to control crime were dominated by the retribution philosophy; i.e., punishment was justified solely to 11 pay back to society" what was taken. In the first part of the 19th century, the retributive philosophy was gradually replaced by the philosophy of restraint, i.e., prison confinement according to the seriousness of the criminal acts, which would obviously prevent the offender from committing further criminal acts and also have both a primary and secondary deterrence effect. Others would learn from the example and would likewise be dissuaded from criminal behavior. This element was not only considered valid in the days of retributive restraint, but was, to some degree, operative throughout the history of the prison system.

As we saw, the 19th century brought with it the philosophy of positivism which concluded that social problems could be solved through application of science. As Empy (1982:386) concludes, though, "each new revolutionary epoch has begun in a flurry of great optimism and ended in an outpouring of criticism and dismay." The current state is likewise "an outpouring of criticism and dismay." In Empy's words (1982:386) " . . . in recent years, it has been increasingly unfashionable to think in such hopeful terms. Indeed, research on the effectiveness of correctional treatment has been interpreted as suggesting that the concept of rehabilitation is dead and should be buried."

What then should be done? Suggestions range from whenever possible doing nothing (and this has seriously been proposed by many criminologists such as Schur, 1973) to severely punishing offenders for their acts without regard to their motivations for committing the act, the contingency factors involved, or concerns about habilitative affects. This theory, the "just desserts" perspective, now very influential in correctional circles (partly in academic but more so in public policy) has brought us back to the original primary response of society to crime-punishment given only because "the offender deserves it" (Von Hirsch, 1976:45-54). One purchasing consumer products must pay the price; one committing criminal acts must likewise pay the cost. It is now felt that the state is obliged to observe parsimony in endeavoring to "habilitate" but is justified only in meting out "just punishment," which means uniform sentencing policies.

Since, as Fox (1979:31) notes, "there is virtually no proof that, short of killing [the offender] ... anyone knows how to stop another person from committing crimes," the habilitative programs in most states today, ranging from education and activity therapy to prison employment and psychotherapy, are optional, Conclusions of the just desserts philosophy are as follows:

1. Citizens deserve to be protected from the capriciousness of the system. If a certain standard of proof is met, the individual is always to experience a fixed sentence.

2. Restitution to the victim is now a major concern because of the current focus on his/her rights and loss. The circumstances of the crime are largely irrelevant, or relevant only as per the bureaucratic standards or as part of restitution. Robbery without a gun may be fifteen years, for example, and robbery with a gun twenty years, regardless of the circumstances of the offense or the offender. judicial discretion should, as far as possible, be removed for the reason that judges are capricious. A system with a great deal of judicial discretion does not result in just, fair, equal punishment.

Corrections and Christianity

Some today still argue that the failure of correctional habilitation attempts, especially community corrections, was not due to incorrect theory, but to improper application or insufficient testing (Bergman, 1979). Although criminologists now generally concede that for some, if not many, persons, reformation appears impossible or extremely remote, they had experimented with numerous approaches before this view was reluctantly accepted. This position is in fact a reflection of the centuries-old theological view that God will judge all persons as either good or wicked, and that the fate of the wicked is everlasting punishment, but that of the good is everlasting life under paradisical conditions (job 21:30; 1 Cor. 3:13; Psalm 37:22, 29). If reform for all persons were possible, adverse judgment would be only for purgatory duration.

Yet reform of humans has always been a major goal of Christianity, and for this reason religious leaders have led most early correctional innovations oriented toward habilitation (McHugh, 1978). Did not the conversion experience-part of the theological literature of most churches and sects-stress reformation, turning around and now living a clean life? Paul stated that "know ye not that the unrighteous shall not enter the kingdom of God? Be not deceived, neither ... thieves, . . . nor drunkards ... nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom ... and such were (Dote the past tense verb) some of you ... but ye are justified in the name of the Lord" (I Cor. 6:9-12). Reform for some, even major life changes, therefore, is certainly possible, and those who work in the prison system can testify that genuine reform does take place but that, in this setting at least, it is rare.

The writer has worked with offenders who were vicious criminals, some convicted of multiple murders, who became model Christians. Many lived an exemplary life for decades afterwards, testifying to the sincerity and permanency of their conversion (Edwards, 1972; Atkins, 1977). A common prison problem, though, is the profession of religious conversion in an effort to please the parole board. This, of course, confounds research on the effect of religious conversion on recidivism. Nonetheless, the fact that many religious converts upon release do not recidivate but live an exemplary life in their community for years demonstrates that sincere conversions do occur. The notorious criminal Ed Edwards (1972) is a good example. The fact that reform occurs for both converts and nonconverts suggests that it is at least a possibility for many persons.

The writer's own observations in various correctional institutions, including Jackson State Prison (Michigan), and his extensive conversations with inmates support the conclusion that habilitation has failed. Why then do some people, even if only a few, abandon a life of crime? The major reasons, which refer to what I call the individual school-because these reasons are highly individualistic and somewhat independent of the above schools of thought-are essentially as follows:

1. Maturity. Many offenders simply "grow out of " a desire to involve themselves in criminal behavior. The majority of adolescents reach this state upon graduation from high school or before, but many of the inmates the writer worked with did not reach this stage until their 30's or later. One 45-year-old inmate exclaimed to the author that, in reassessing his past, he concluded that at this point in his life robbing stores and netting a couple hundred dollars or so (and then every few years enduring a three or four year stint in prison) -was no longer fulfilling. He realized that if he was going to achieve what he now valued as a worthwhile life, his behavior had to change. In a followup after his release, it seemed apparent that he ,vas living up to his new goals.

2. Insight. Many offenders realize that the rewards and fruits of criminal activity, even while on the outside, are limited. A goalless and basically purposeless life loses its value, and growth helps one develop the desire to achieve goals, such as middle class respectability and stability. Other offenders simply realize that a life of crime is more difficult after one reaches middle age. Previous injuries, the effects of age, slower reflexes, et cetera, make criminal success more difficult.

3. Rising Up the Crime Hierarchy. Some find that a life of petty crime, while glamorous at first, loses its appeal. They still wish to be involved in criminal pursuits, but realize that to do so successfully they are going to have to take up organized crime, prostitution, the importation of drugs, or other more lucrative criminal activities. They realize that, to do this, a great deal of knowledge and education is necessary. To this end, they educate themselves, both by learning from other inmates (thus prisons are called schools of crime) and extensive reading. They thus avoid petty criminal activities for which apprehension is likely and instead involve themselves in more sophisticated organized activities for which apprehension is far less probable and the rewards are greater. These offenders often do not become recidivists, but are certainly not reformed. They become part of the massive criminal underworld in which the likelihood of getting caught, apprehended, or convicted is very low. They "graduate," and become high status criminal professionals.

4. Life Value Change. Some, typically through religious conversion, change their entire set of life goals. The writer has worked with many offenders who had a religious experience and who resolved to drastically change their lives. Many of these display an immense dedication while still in prison, involving themselves in Biblical and religious study, and evangelizing other inmates. They typically live a strict, disciplined life, abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, obscene language, immorality, and drugs, all of which are common in the prison. Some even become vegetarians or fast weekly. These highly moral, disciplined, friendly, gregarious, talkative persons often stand out from the typical inmate. They resolve to live their Christianity in the prison by doing good works. Many become involved in various self-help activities, in chapel service or various mail ministries. Their whole life philosophy changes from one which is hedonistic and self-centered to one which is highly disciplined and other-centered. Material possessions, instead of being an end, become a means to what they consider a higher end. An example of organizations that work in this direction is Prison Fellowship.

5. Bonding. Many inmates develop a relationship with a person of the opposite sex, and through this person change their values and life orientation. Their attachment to this other person is such that they scrupulously avoid criminal activity in order to maintain a relationship which is valuable to them, and which they realize is not worth jeopardizing.

6. Goal Multiplication. Other inmates utilize their experiences in crime as a means of gaining status by becoming, after their release, counselors in juvenile delinquent training programs or similar occupations. Part of the reason for this may be the discovery of a rewarding role which they do not want to jeopardize. On the other hand, some of these individuals clandestinely engage in crime while still maintaining their role in the community as a reformed offender helping other young persons avoid a life of crime (Cressey, 1961).

7. Stagnation. Many offenders, especially those with minimal social skills, emotional or personality problems, or limited intelligence, continue to involve themselves in crime and spend most of their lives in and out of prison. After the accumulation of three or four felony convictions, they eventually end up with a long prison sentence and are paroled only when they are seventy or more and involvement in crime is exceedingly difficult.

8. Continuation. Many end up murdered, especially those with interpersonal problems (and there are many of these persons in prison). They cause problems Dot only on the outside, but have constant run-ins and conflicts, in the prison. Unable to adequately deal with people, they antagonize the staff and other inmates alike and are not uncommonly murdered sooner or later within the walls of the institution. In many prisons an average of one homicide a week is not uncommon. Typically, there is not a great deal of concern from either the other inmates or the administration relative to these homicides. Many people get themselves into trouble because of their incredibly short temper and emotional flareups that are out of all proportion to the situation. These persons in time often find themselves in prison, and then continue the same behavior. They also may spend a great deal of their time "in the hole."

9. Positive Growth. Although few inmates are affected much by either psychological counseling, vocational training, or educational advancement, some individual inmates, depending upon the person and the circumstances, can gain from these programs. Once one has marketable skills or has achieved a college degree, one's attitude toward life may (but not necessarily) drastically change. The writer is aware of several success stories in which educational programs have been very influential. As a whole, though, educational programs in and of themselves do not work and largely produce only better educated criminals (Roberts, 1973). For a limited number of individuals, though, involvement in some programs can be effective. Persons who take up painting or achieve prominence in some area, such as the famous "bird man" of Alcatraz, illustrate this phenomenon. Thus, what works for an individual depends highly upon many circumstances, and especially upon personality and situational factors.


Each new theory in corrections seems to sound plausible to some and many have some validity. No one theory explains all crime, but each may explain a type of deviance or supply one of the factors that contribute to crime. The problem is that their application has failed to ameliorate most crime, and that each theory was faced with serious theoretical problems and numerous exceptions.

Modern-day criminologists are increasingly conceding that reformation and habilitation seem to be largely impossible (Schur, 1973; Quinney, 1970; Lipton, 1975; Martinson, 1974, 1976). Once a personality and life habits are formed, change is extremely difficult, even if the person desperately wants to change. The most one can do is simply to force an offender to pay back to society its just due.

All programs aimed toward habilitation have achieved individual examples of success, but looked at across the board each type has clearly failed. Habilitation involves a highly individual response and decision. The majority of adult offenders will not be habilitated, but will continue the life of crime until they die of natural causes or are murdered by other inmates, the police or others on the outside. Modern correctional policy has, for this reason, formally abandoned the habilitative ideal.

Fixed sentences are now stressed by many reformers, and, once served, the offender is to be released regardless of whether the probability of recidivism is high or low. One took from society and thus one must return, i.e., receive one's "just desserts." The just desserts philosophy presently in vogue essentially requires the offender to "pay back" to society a measure of suffering, which is to be "fair," consistently applied, and in rough proportion to the harm be or she has caused society or some part of it. The "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" philosophy has today virtually replaced habilitation which, if available at all, is at best optional. Thus, within the last 200 years, we have completed a circle. The ancient Biblical injunction has been resurrected, and is now viewed by many as the most realistic response to the tragedy and problem of criminal behavior.

In the future, as our understanding of human behavior increases, the cycle will likely repeat itself, and correctional philosophy will likely move toward experimentation with more benign methods of intervention and habilitation. Possibly the major thrust will be in the area of prevention and long-term intensive habilitation. Possibly too, the success of religious conversion will influence future correctional programs.

Implications for Christianity

There is a tendency for Christians to believe that if a criminal offender persists in his or her ways, that the person is morally irredeemable, especially if the person is not aware of the difficulty of changing adult criminal behavior. However, Christianity requires concern to be expressed not only towards one's friends, but also those who would be regarded as one's enemies, and criminals are generally seen as enemies of society. Such concern is not to be superficial; loving concern is an integral teaching of Christianity and a theme that is constantly elucidated in the Scriptures.

Although the state has a right to punish violators of its laws (Romans 13:1-7), the individual Christian is commanded not to seek vengeance. Forgiveness is to be the pattern of response (up to 77 times according to Matthew 18:21). Compassion towards offenders, although at times difficult, is imperative. While a Christian certainly has the right to protect him or herself and his or her family, both Christian tradition and legal statute in most countries prohibit overreacting. The problem of what to do with criminals and how to deal with unlawful behavior has always been vexing for Christians. It requires a careful balance of justice, love, mercy and wisdom. Some encouraging results have been achieved by Chuck Colson in his prison ministry. While it is too early to judge the efficacy of this program, we need more understanding of the conversion process, the type of offenders that are attracted to this approach, and of the approaches which are effective in attracting offenders to a Christian commitment (Colson, 1979). The general lack of success of secular approaches has forced some persons to look at the Christian approach, realizing that the response to God differs from that to the state or an individual.


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