Scared Straight

Established in the 1970s, Scared Straight programs are used throughout the World as a means of deterring juvenile crime. They usually entail visits by at-risk youth to adult prisons, where youth hear about the harsh reality of prison life from inmates. The programs can involve tours of the facility, living the life of a prisoner for a full day, aggressive "in-your-face" presentations by inmates, and one-on-one counselling. However well-intentioned these prison-visit programs may be, decades of research have shown that this approach is not only ineffective, but possibly harmful to youth.

A study by Anthony Petrosino and researchers at the Campbell Collaboration analyzed results from nine Scared Straight programs and found that such programs generally increased crime up to 28 percent in the experimental group when compared to a no-treatment control group. In another analysis of juvenile prevention and treatment programs, Mark Lipsey of the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies found that youth who participate in Scared Straight and other similar deterrence programs have higher recidivism rates than youth in control groups. And a report presented in 1997 to the U.S. Congress reviewed more than 500 crime prevention evaluations and placed Scared Straight programs in the "what does not work" category. Despite these findings, Scared Straight programs continue to be used throughout the United States and abroad.

What other forms of intervention have you found are more successful than SS?

The justice system has a lot of discretion about whether to divert or process low-level offenders. For juveniles who've done something like vandalism or burglary, maybe it's not serious enough to warrant juvenile court or facility. What we've found in our review, and what's been held up by other studies, is that diversion with services, including counseling, education, and employment, seems to be very effective. That's one strategy. Another is cognitive behavioral therapy, which attempts to restructure an offender's thinking about the distortions they hold which support their offending behavior, and has shown very positive effects.

Can you explain the psychological mechanics behind Scared Straight and why they don't work as advertised?

One theory out there is peer contagion theory: kids who are more inclined to be law abiding will be influenced in these groups by more deviant peers. Scared straight is a group intervention; kids don't go in by themselves. That's one possibility that's raised when interventions like this backfire. Other people think as kids go through scared straight, particularly the harsher forms of it where inmates are yelling at them, they don't really perceive it as a threatening outcome that's likely to happen to them. The kids themselves think they're not going to be caught, so they see people behind bars as being losers, and they may even be further emboldened or inspired to do something [criminal]. But there's been no firm tests with data that shows why this sort of [approach] is wrong. 

One study found that juvenile offenders have post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate comparable to Iraq War veterans. Might that explain why scared straight doesn't work, because it attempts to treat trauma with more potential trauma?

For whatever reason, and I don't know what the mechanism is, when we try to get harsher, it seems to backfire. We did a systematic review in 2010, looking at studies in which kids were either diverted from the [juvenile justice] system or officially processed through [it]. It's uncanny that in those 27 to 29 experiments, kids who were diverted out of the system did much better if they got services versus going through the formal juvenile court process. The kids who got nothing, diverted to go home to their parents with no treatment, even did slightly better than those who went through the formal juvenile court! That's amazing, because then it's a helluva lot cheaper to just send the kid home rather than process them. That's a cost savings for juvenile justice authorities; to be able to divert more kids out instead of putting through them a formal process. 

Even on the adult side, people studied the length of prison terms and found a negative impact: the people getting the longer sentences, all things being equal, are doing worse when they get out than people who get lesser sentences. There's kind of a pattern of results which I think for the most part people are feeling now this idea that we're punishing too many people, especially nonviolent people, too harshly. 



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