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“Scared Straight” Programs are Counterproductive

The Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, recently reported on the mixed results of “Scared Straight” programs, which are intended to deter juveniles with a history of bad behavior from entering the criminal justice system by having them visit prisons or jails to see first-hand the consequences of breaking the law. Several studies maintain that such programs may actually increase the probability of offending by participating youths.

Dating from the 1970s, Scared Straight programs advocating an “in-your-face” confrontational approach have long been thought to benefit at-risk children, but a 2013 study by The Campbell Collaboration found that participating juveniles committed 28% more crimes than non-participants. Mark Lipsey at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies reached similar conclusions, stating flatly that Scared Straight programs “do not work.”

That may be because poor decision-making, a lack of impulse control due to immaturity, anger problems and substance abuse issues cannot be addressed by having adult prisoners scream threats at youths in an attempt to frighten them.

Nonetheless, many similar programs still exist across the country, spurred in part by the popular A&E television show “Beyond Scared Straight,” which has won several awards. U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, however, have not been swayed by the popularization of Scared Straight programs.

According to the DOJ’s Laurie O. Robinson, and Jeff Slowikowski with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), “The fact that [these] programs are still being touted as effective, despite stark evidence to the contrary, is troubling.” Similar programs in Maryland and California, previously featured on “Beyond Scared Straight,” have been suspended.

According to the OJJDP, “The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, as amended, prohibits court-involved youth from being detained, confined, or otherwise having contact with adult inmates in jails and prison. In keeping with the Act, and supported by research, OJJDP does not fund Scared Straight programs and cites such programs as potential violations of federal law.”

Yet such statements have not deterred some jurisdictions from continuing the popular programs, which are generally inexpensive to create and administer. Raleigh County, West Virginia started a Scared Straight program in 2012 and received strong community support, especially from Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick. According to the judge, “Scared Straight is controversial because recent studies show that it achieves only mixed results as a deterrence factor. However, I believe that the project can be very useful as long as care is taken to ensure that the right kids are accepted into the program.”

While the parents of juveniles chosen to take part in such programs have to execute waivers to allow them to participate, the suitability of frustrated parents of troubled or rebellious youth to make informed decisions is questionable, particularly when the dubious benefits of Scared Straight programs are lauded by court and jail officials. Additionally, it is hard to see any objective benefits from subjecting children – especially those suffering from mental health or behavioral issues that cause them to act out in the first place – to profanity, threats of physical or sexual abuse, humiliation and sometimes restraints such as handcuffs or shackles.

Despite their popularity, Scared Straight programs have not proven to be an effective deterrent for at-risk youth and instead do more harm than good, the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded. A more constructive approach would provide juveniles with “straight” information about the consequences of crime and misbehavior while avoiding the counterproductive “scared” component.

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