OP-ED: Joe Vignati On Beyond Scared Straight and the Irresponsibility of the A&E Network

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scared_straight_series THESE are the times that try men’s souls. –Thomas Paine

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

11 thoughts on “OP-ED: Joe Vignati On Beyond Scared Straight and the Irresponsibility of the A&E Network

  1. I am very interested in this article for my own research in a different area than juvenile crime. However, just allow me to think out loud here (and first admit that I have no experience with juvenile crime, in any role) —

    – “you” (SS programs) take individual juveniles with backgrounds of criminal behaviour, juveniles who likely have weak to non-existent ties to positive male role-models

    – you put them in a mock-up situation where they are put in the spotlight in front of a parent, family, authority figures, peers, and the tough-enough persona being created in their personality – that is, their self-judge, their ego that rewards them for being outside the law, taking risks to subvert authority, developing, regardless of degree of naivete, a criminal mindset

    – and in this spotlight you subject them to males that have been identified by authorities in the juvenile’s life as role-models of a sort – that is, males whose opinions should matter

    – and these male role-models proceed to, under sanction of authority …. bully and humiliate the juvenile.

    How is the juvenile supposed to win in this situation?

    I suppose it depends how committed he is to the tough-enough personality he feels he needs to have to survive in his world with his concept of dignity or respect intact.

    I would offer the guess that the more committed the more SS program would just be something else the hardening juvenile would use to prove to himself that A. authority figures are indeed out to break him down and B. he is tough-enough to not be affected, to not be broken.

    This is strictly my guess though. It seems plausible though, doesnt it? At least from the juvenile’s perspective?

    Clearly, POSITIVE male role-models, occurring at a much younger age, will do the most to help keep juveniles out of prisons.

    Thank you for the research and article.

    – as an entertainment source, the prison subgenre had been popular for decades prior to SS. There is a fascination among the mainstream with the “underbelly” of society – the criminal, crime family, prison life. Novelists and screenwriters have succeeded to portray these elements in entertaining ways to a credulous and distraction-hungry audience.

    In the mainstream, such things as SS are entertainment. A&E exists to entertain. Attract viewers, viewers who like to think they are actually learning something rather than being entertained. Infotainment.

    Now, I have just provided two very non-controversial points of context with which to assess the validity of this article.

    Prison exploitation as subgenre has been popular for a long time. The hysterical and politically motivated campaign to incarcerate introduced by Reagan’s neocons brings such things to mainstream audiences to “inform”. Rather, it is to indoctrinate that mainstream into things that, to be quite honest, they take an interest in simply as a slice of that subgenre. It contains a spice. Yes, it is and always has been exploitation, long before SS, and long after.

  2. I’m not sure if it’s the ignorance or what?
    You can’t deny these facts: Violent Assaults in Jail ARE real, RAPE in Prison IS real, Being pushed around and “OWNED” IS real, scared out of your wits IS real. Why do I know this? Because I am a 21 year veteran of a correctional facility.
    So that being said: Why does a kid behave themselves? Maybe because they ARE afraid, afraid they might be grounded, punished, hit etc.. Why do people obey laws? Maybe its because they are afraid of the consequences, tickets, fines, jail etc…
    Now, have you ever sat down and asked an inmate why they do what they do? I have! Their stories range, but about 80% of the time, they state “because I can, nothing is going to happen to me”. These men and women all know that our justice system has softened with the likes of the ACLU and others fighting every little hang nail for them. They are getting off with slaps on the hand multiple times before they do small bids. Back in the day, you could ask someone, and they would tell you they only committed 1 crime but got hammered for it. Some, never did anything again. Is this scientific, absolutely not! Is it real, YES it is.
    Scientific Research? Let me guess, they did this study with NO compensation. So they had nothing to gain. Right!! enough said!!
    As far as A&E being irresponsible, It’s a television show, turn the channel. Or Seek new laws and get the programming changed.
    My guess is you are against hitting a child for discipline purposes (Not Beating). Funny, how most of the kids who were hit at a young age, turn out pretty damn good. Funny, how kids who were punished and had their mouths washed out with soap, turned out pretty damn good. This is not to say that kids should be beat on a daily basis. But, just like and adult in a court room with a judge deciding their fate, a childs fate is decided by their parents. Here is where you may slam people. The upbringing of children is an outrage, allowing kids to do what they want, when they want, and to who they want with no repercussions. Making excuses for their children, their just wound up, they just didn’t sleep much, they are just active…and so on. We as parents have let our children fall by the wayside because we are wrapped up in our own little worlds.
    As far as repeat offenders, figure it out…they either don’t know anything else, love the lifestyle in which it provides, or have been doing it SO LONG THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ELSE!!! Hmmmm Cut this response up all you want,because someone doesn’t agree with you, but these are the COLD HARD FACTS, NOT Scientific Research.

    • I appreciate your comments.
      And it REALLY does matter.

      No one is denying the terrible reality of prison life.
      I think the issue is whether or not we should expose children to these harsh realities and whether or not exposure to real prison life has a deterrence effect?

      Much like a drive down the interstate, when we see a police car on the side of the road we instinctively slow down. But once we get over the hill and see they are not following, we speed back up.

      The deterrence effect lasts as long as the threat is real in our mind. Take the ultimate deterrence, capital punishment. Research has shown that there is a small dip in crime immediately after an execution, but that it goes back to normal levels soon after.

      Out of sight, out of mind. Even more so for an adolescent mind.

      We have a separate system that is established by law.
      Depending on the circumstances and the state, there are both state and federal laws that Scared Straight programs violate.

      When it comes to the research, I urge everyone to check the facts for themselves and not take mine, or anyone elses, word for it.
      Find out for yourself.
      Be informed.
      By refusing to look at research and not being open to what has been found to work for kids makes it hard for me to support many of your points.

      I agree with your concerns about the upbringing of children.
      But I also believe in what I have seen.
      Much as you speak from your experience in adult corrections, I speak from mine as both a former juvenile correctional officer and juvenile probation officer (10+ years).
      I have seen with my own eyes what works with juveniles and what does not.
      Scared Straight does not work.

  3. Scared Straight: The Panacea Phenomenon Revisited

    “The myth that fear of consequences sustains behavioral change persists in criminal justice philosophy and public perception. Readers are challenged to shun strategies that appeal to emotion and popular belief and undertake the challenging search for substantive, effective ways to deter deviant behavior in juveniles.”

  4. “If you place kids in this program and they are MORE likely to re-offend.”
    That seems like an extremely over the top statement and I imagine that quite a good amount of time devoted to massaging numbers and the meanings of words is the bedrock on which it stands. Short of an offender overtly stating that the program caused them to commit crimes, I don’t see how you could say that this program makes it more likely to re-offend. Our uber-violent modern youth culture is firmly rooted decades of failed liberal policies and this insane belief that coddling violent youths will somehow reduce their recidivism rate. The proof is in the pudding as it were, the show follows up with the kids and shows that many do actually improve as a result of seeing a dose of reality up close.

    • By all means, please check the research done by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy and the Campbell Collaboration among others that support such a statement.

      Rest assured that the points made in the piece are well-supported by research and have an empirical basis.

      I would question the basis for your assertion that
      “Our uber-violent modern youth culture is firmly rooted decades of failed liberal policies”

      These are well-respected research entities with no other agenda than to determine the effectiveness of juvenile interventions.

      Anyone who knows the research is aware that a one month follow-up for juvenile recidivism proves nothing. 6, 12, 24, 36 months are standard.

      I appreciate your interest in the issue.
      Don’t take my word for it, find out for yourself.

  5. Get outta here..this shows what it will be like for you to go to jail, cause that where these kids are headed if no one steps up and helps make some changes. You need to have options to change and those options provided must be in sense, at a place where you can be informed by those options. You have to want to change. Theres nothing wrong with this program. You’re setting these kids up for failure but not showing them the real. You want to slap them on the wrist and say hey keep doing crime, then they end up places where they have no help. get outta here!-ground hogg

    • Sadly Derek,
      this program doesn’t work.
      If you place kids in this program and they are MORE likely to re-offend.

      There are juveniles who cannot be helped through the juvenile system and unfortunately graduate to the adult system. There is not a reference in the piece suggesting that we go treat juveniles lightly, or adults, for that matter.

      We are a nation of laws.
      We have a different system of law established for juveniles in our country.
      One that recognizes the cognitive differences of adults and juveniles and their corresponding responsibility, as well as their ability to change.

      Let us follow the rule of law and treat juveniles accordingly.
      If you don’t agree, then work to change the law, don’t break it.
      Scared Straight programming violates well-established principles of effective criminogenic intervention and, in some instances, federal law.

      So, should we base our actions on these established rules or let our emotions get away from us and react inappropriately?

      I agree with you that we must teach young people appropriate boundaries, respect, and responsibility, but it is in HOW we teach these things that we show our humanity and our true strength.

      Therein lies the difference between accountability and abuse.

  6. I understand the research findings but all research can be squeed, but the fact remains that the information that the prisoners are giving out is true, and it is definitely real in their world. So should we continue to lie and sugarcoat the situations of crime, because they are children. The use of fear and punishment is what most people recognize as effective when they have done wrong. Today’s youth when you pat them on the hand, they see you and the system as weak. It only reinforces the reason they should do crime, because in most cases the Juvenile has more control than the adults. Why do juvenile and adult offenders have more rights than the administrators, officers, and staff who work in most juvenile facilities. I have prior knowledge where most officers are investigated for incidents involving juveniles who have been violent toward them. In most systems it is deemed cruel and unusual punishment for facility staff to press charges against offenders who have even caused them physical harm. Can we have some rights for the facility staff against young delinquent offenders, who are not held accountable for most of their actions by the system.

    • As an educator you understand what independent, unbiased research indicates.

      As an educator you realize that the adolescent brain is fundamentally different from that of an adult.
      Given this difference, you understand that the expectation we have for a child is different from our expectation for an adult.

      The point conveyed above is focused on what works for children and how they are being mistreated by programming that does not work.

      By all means we need to educate youth about the consequences of crime. We just don’t need to abuse them to convey this message.

      The issue of Scared Straight programming as discussed above is a totally separate issue from your concerns about the rights of facility staff, as such your comments are not germane.

      I worked in a juvenile detention center and as a juvenile probation officer for several years. If you feel weak the kids will sense your weakness.
      Typically complaints were handled appropriately and staff were treated according to established policy and the rule of law.

      Responding with brute force when it is not necessary is true weakness.