Over 110 years ago in Chicago, America changed direction in its criminal justice system and began to recognize the needs of young people required differential treatment when compared to the needs of adults. This was the birth of the juvenile justice system we now have today. More than a century of research and best-practice support this founding premise that youth are fundamentally different than adults, in both their level of responsibility as well as their potential for rehabilitation. This investment in the potential of our young is reaping positive benefits.
Juvenile crime is trending downward. According to the U.S. Department of Justice
- Between 1994 and 2001, violent crime arrest rates declined for all age groups, but the declines were greater for juveniles than for adults. More specifically, the rates dropped 43 percent for youth ages 15-17, compared with 23 percent for adults ages 18-24, 27 percent for those ages 25-29, and 19 percent for those ages 30-39.
- The national juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate fell for the second consecutive year and is down 5 percent since 2006.
As these numbers seem to indicate, the application of scientific principles to juvenile justice is not “being soft on crime” but in fact, an effective crime prevention strategy.
In spite of these successes, our juvenile system is under attack:
- Critical juvenile justice funding is at stake
- On the federal level, Congress has cut federal juvenile justice funds it provides to states more than 50 percent in the past 10 years and even more draconian cuts are being considered.
- Many state budgets have been squeezed by the economic downturn and one of the more popular cuts has been juvenile services.
- The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the federal office under the Department of Justice that oversees juvenile justice still has not had an administrator appointed, a vacancy of more than more than 900 days, leaving a void in national leadership and advocacy.
- Season 2 of Beyond Scared Straight premieres, Thursday August 18th on A&E
After becoming the highest rated program in the history of the Disney-owned A&E network, a new season of this “reality” show returns to titillate the curious and misinformed. (See my previous piece on the dangers of Scared Straight.)
While the first two bullets are disheartening to juvenile justice professionals nationally, it is the third bullet, “Beyond Scared Straight,” that will be my focus.
- Several states suspending or discontinuing this programming (California, Maryland, Rohde Island and South Carolina)
- 20+ years of scientific research that shows the negative results of this type of programming
- Position pieces by the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges condemning Scared Straight programming
The producers of “Beyond Scared Straight” think they are the experts. They know more than juvenile justice researchers, practitioners and juvenile court judges who deal with youth on a daily basis? Why? What could be the possible reason? Is it their education? Is it proven results? Is it overly inflated Hollywood egoism? Do they truly have a better idea for helping children?
No, the producers just have a better soapbox. This television show is their cash cow.
They are lining their pockets on the misery of children (and hapless prison accomplices) while enhancing the bottom line of the network’s parent company Disney. Watch if you will, but know what you are supporting.
Now for even bigger questions:
Why should we support programming that uses threats of physical and sexual violence against children in order to (hopefully) change their behavior? Would we allow our school teachers to engage in this type of behavior? More importantly, would we allow parents to engage in this behavior? ‘Scared Straight’ models the very behaviors we are attempting to prevent our young from engaging!
Let’s say what the producers of this program are afraid to admit:
The scared straight approach is an inappropriate and unacceptable means for disciplining children. This approach has been shown to cause short- and long- term harm and actually INCREASES the likelihood of re-offending among some participants.
Given the nature of the abuses witnessed over the show’s first season, I am surprised that child abuse/maltreatment charges have not been brought forth.
Should we as a society give in to our base impulses, give up and embrace the bleak vision ‘Scared Straight’ offers our children?
There is a difference between tough love and abuse. There is a difference between holding youth accountable and punishment. And there is a critical difference between a parent and a prisoner.
‘Scared Straight’ programming follows a course of action that is at odds with reason, compassion and scientific principles. It is a desperate short-sighted, short-term solution offered to frustrated parents and juvenile administrators to solve a long-range problem, changing the behavior of their youth.
Unfortunately there are no short-cuts. There is not a magic vaccine to inoculate against juvenile crime. Now is not the time to turn our back on the investments we have made, the knowledge gained through research and the countless lives changed through the application of these scientific principles.
We must stay the course set more than 110 years ago.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. --Thomas Paine