"Scared Straight" programs are all talk
“Scared Straight”, the popular 1978 documentary by Arnold Shapiro, has been brought to television as “Beyond Scared Straight.” I avoided watching the new reality television series because all the research shows the scare tactics of taking kids to jail for a day does not work. I was hoping that after one season the show would die and just go away. Unfortunately, it is back for a new season.
How does “Beyond Scared Straight” work? It is easy. You handcuff a few kids, take them on a tour of a jail, and let guards and prisoners scream at them all day until they break. After, the kids go home and never commit a crime again.
Of course, this is the desired end result. In reality, the television series does a follow-up with kids after 30 days and finds that some of the youth report that they have changed, while others say nothing has changed. The show I watched followed up with four kids after 30 days; two said their behavior had improved and two said nothing had changed. Not a very good success rate for 30 days later. I would guess that another follow-up after 90 days might show even worse results.
After "Scared Straight" became popular in the 1970s, a number of research reports evaluated children who went through the program compared to control groups and found that many of the youth who attended “scared straight” programs were actually worse off than the youth who had no intervention.
The kids that are successful with the scared straight program are the minor offenders, those who are labeled “at risk”, who would have improved without any intervention. We know more about teenage behavior and brain development since the 70s. We now know that most teenagers who commit minor crimes grow out of the behavior. The young brain does not fully develop until the mid 20s and impulse control is weak, at best, in the teen years.
I hope the juvenile advocates keep up the debate on the “Beyond Scared Straight” series. I hate to see limited resources for proven effective youth services be siphoned off for another round of bad practices. Politicians love to cite these scared straight programs, but they are about as effective as the marriages from The Bachelor series.
The post above is reprinted with permission from San Jose Inside.
- Beyond "Scared Straight" -- Moving to Programs that Actually Work
- Scared Straight: Don't Believe the Hype (Facts from CJJ)
- Less Scared Straight, More Talk Therapy
- Scared Straight -- or Just Scared? Judges Speak Out Against 'Beyond "Scared Straight"'