On January 13th, A&E will premiere its new series Beyond Scared Straight touting the benefits of Scared Straight programming to an unsuspecting U.S. audience.
Unfortunately, there’s little new to be presented, either in effective programming for youth or responsible broadcast standards for prime time television.
The original Scared Straight!, produced in 1978, won an Academy Award (Best Documentary) for its Director, Arnold Shapiro. This was followed by Scared Straight! Another Story (1980), and Scared Straight! 10 Years Later (1987), and, for good measure, Scared Straight! 20 Years Later (1999).
It appears that Mr. Shapiro is nothing, if consistent, in his messaging (he was also producer of the amazingly popular television shows Rescue 911 and Big Brother).
Unfortunately for the viewing public, his message is amazingly wrong.
The premise behind scared straight programming is classic deterrence theory. Take at-risk youth, put them in an adult prison, and expose them to adult prisoners so they get a taste of what their life could be like if they don’t change. The idea is that by inflicting kids with enough pain/discomfort now (through shock immersion in prison culture) this will discourage offending behavior in the future.
The new show and A&E’s website claim: "Over the years, both the prison program and the film have turned countless kids away from drugs, violence and crime, and kept them out of prison.”
When information is lacking, fear tends to proliferate. This programming preys on parents and communities sometimes desperate to find a way to make an impact on a troubled youth.
This type of get- tough message has great appeal: the spare the rod, spoil the child approach has deep roots in our culture and thrives on community fear and misinformation.
At the time that the original Scared Straight! first aired, we did not have the research to show what works in juvenile justice prevention and intervention. Fortunately, in the past 32 years since the original Scared Straight! first aired, research has caught up with reality television and is able to provide us with the truth about some of Scared Straight’s claims.
In the short-term, Scared Straight programs succeed in getting a kid’s attention. It seems rational, and surveys taken after the prison experience almost universally indicate that youth have had a strong reaction and are “going to clean up my act”.
But the research is clear, once the trauma of Scared Straight has worn off, meta-analysis shows that this intervention actually INCREASES the odds of offending compared to a no-treatment control group.
Their research separates juvenile justice system interventions into two broad categories:
- Control Approaches - Scared Straight falls in this category.
- Therapeutic Approaches - Skill Building, Counseling, Multiple Service Delivery fall in this category.
Multiple studies clearly show that Therapeutic approaches are effective, Control approaches are not effective.
It is important to also note that the US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention actively discourages the use of Scared Straight programming. Here’s why:
- Scared Straight programming is not only ineffective, it may actually increase the participant’s risk of offending.
- Research shows it does not work as intended and may have a negative impact
It may not make for good television but as good stewards of public funds it is our obligation to avoid the lazy sensationalism of easy, reality show “fixes” and ground our response to crime prevention in solid, research-based interventions that have proven their effectiveness.
Your tax dollars are being used to support a program that makes it more likely that juveniles will break the law. Isn’t it time that we direct our scarce resources towards programming that has been shown to reduce crime?
Joe Vignati has been working in the juvenile justice field for more than 23 years. He heads Justice Programs at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in Georgia. In 2010, Mr. Vignati was elected the National Juvenile Justice Specialist by his peers in the 56 states and territories of the U.S. to represent their interests and he currently serves on the Executive Board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in that capacity.
Producer Arnold Shapiro admits he has never looked at any studies evaluating the effectiveness of his Scared Straight shows. Read what else he tells JJIE.org