Angelo Speziale may be the most infamous graduate of Scared Straight! As a scrawny 16-year-old, he appeared in the original Scared Straight! documentary filmed at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison in 1978. Now he’s back--serving 25-to-life in Rahway for the 1982 rape and murder of a teenage girl who lived next door to him.
Proponents of “Scared Straight” claim the program literally scares kids away from a life of crime. In a follow-up show called Scared Straight: 20 Years Later, Speziale echoed this, claiming the experience changed him. Apparently not enough. He was arrested for shoplifting in 2005 and a DNA sample linked him to the 30-year-old cold case murder for which he was convicted in 2010. A New Jersey law enforcement source confirms Angelo Speziale is the same person who appeared in both documentaries.
Here is a clip from Scared Straight: 20 Years Later which aired in 1998. Speziale appears at 8:45.
Speziale may become a poster child for groups opposing A&E’s new series Beyond Scared Straight, who say the program is ineffective and does more harm than good.
A petition by the Campaign for Youth Justice is calling on A&E to yank Beyond Scared Straight off the cable channel. The petition says the show is promoting “the spread of a noxious program” and may be in violation of federal law, citing portions of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s [OJJDP] Compliance Manual.
The petition is also asking that A&E do a better job of educating viewers on the shortcomings of the “Scared Straight” approach. The show follows at-risk kids as they are confronted by prison inmates who try to scare them into turning their lives around. About 300 people have signed the online petition and they are not alone in opposing Beyond Scared Straight.
Two Justice Department officials have written an op-ed piece describing scared straight programs as “not only ineffective but potentially harmful” to the kids involved. The op-ed appears in Tuesday’s Baltimore Sun, written by OJJDP Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and Laurie O. Robinson, from the Office of Justice Programs. They say that, “when it comes to our children,” policymakers and parents should “follow evidence, not anecdote.”
As JJIE reported earlier this week, The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is also calling on A&E to present the facts about Beyond Scared Straight. Last month juvenile crime experts told JJIE.org the show may generate more crime.
Beyond Scared Straight producer, Arnold Shapiro, has said he’s never read any of the studies, but claims the research is wrong. He believes follow-ups are the best indicator of success with the “Scared Straight” approach and points to the success of kids from his original 1978 documentary, “Scared Straight!” He’s apparently not talking about Angelo Speziale.
Amid this mounting criticism, one “Scared Straight” program in Rhode Island was suspended after administrators learned children as young as 8 were involved. The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Family decided that Scared Straight techniques could be “traumatizing” for someone that young, according to the Providence Journal.
Despite what the experts say, public comments about the show appear mostly positive. Comments posted at JJIE.org and A&E’s online discussion board run the gamut from desperate parents with troubled kids, willing to try anything, to get-tougher advocates who think the show doesn’t go far enough in confronting kids with the grim realities of prison. Here’s a sample:
Dee: “I have a 16 year old nephew that is uncontrolable [sic] at this point. He needs to see this first hand.”
Jalila Hood: “I am a deaf Single mom who raising my kids by myself they’re very disrespectful and out of control….i need that help especially for my son he will be 13 this year he has done shoplifting and hasn’t gotten caught yet?”
Foodcritic: “This show is too mild and they need to raise the stakes to wake these hoodlum kids up.”
JJIE staff actually tried to contact some of the most desperate-sounding authors by return email. So far, no one has responded.
The controversy has not hurt Beyond Scared Straight. The show set a ratings record for the A&E Network with 3.8 million viewers when it debuted on January 13. “We could not be more proud to have undertaken this groundbreaking series,” Bob DeBitetto, President of A&E told the Hollywood Reporter, “and the audience response is extremely rewarding.