The “Beyond Scared Straight” message: “In prison for a day to stay out for life” certainly appeals to a television audience. The hit series from Disney’s A&E Network became the most watched original series launch in the network’s history with an audience of 3.7 million people. The show is a spin off of the multiple award-winning documentary films also produced by Arnold Shapiro.
But do “scared straight” programs really work to reduce juvenile crime? “No,” claimed Professor James Finckenauer, Ph.D., from Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, in his address to the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in New York City in July. Finckenauer, author of “Scared Straight! and the Panacea Phenomenon,” cogently explained why those programs don’t work by examining the concept of “deterrence” as applied to teenage thinking and behavior.
I confess, I was one of the judges who accepted the evidence that “scared straight,” programs didn’t work, but I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I thought, I certainly would have been “scared straight” after experiencing a day in prison, including being yelled at by brutal inmates, clanging bars, menacing guards, etc. Why wouldn’t it work on at-risk teens? What was wrong with the headline: “They think they’re fighters. Will it change when they can’t fight back?”
Plenty, according to Finckenauer. First, “Scared straight” programs arise out of the concept of “vicarious deterrence,” which he defined as “avoiding behavior by experiencing what happens to others.”
“Those programs require young people to project into the future,” Finckenauer said. “Teenagers don’t think like that, they don’t think logically or long term. That’s why they’re kids. They are impulsive, and think short term, especially when it comes to punishment.”
Finckenauer mentioned a kind of “optimism” that works against vicarious deterrence. “Kids know how hit and miss the criminal justice system is. They believe they might not get caught when they think about committing a crime. What young people react to is: (1) How swift is the punishment in terms of the behavior? (2) How certain is it that a consequence will occur? and (3) How severe is the punishment? The extreme nature of the punishment shown in “scared straight” programs doesn’t match the expectations of young people. They don’t picture themselves locked up.
“Scared straight programs are developed by adults for kids, but kids don’t react the same way as adults,” Finckenauer said. That’s why the television series is popular with adults, but unsuccessful with kids.
“Big, muscular, tough guys are what the kids see during a prison tour as the inmates yell and scream at them in the hopes of scaring them out of committing a crime,” Finckenauer said. “Kids don’t see beaten down losers.” It’s a disconnect.
Most helpful to the judges in the audience was Finckenauer’s discussion of deterrence in the general population. “There are three general types,” he said. “First, the undeterrable, the psychopaths, where deterrence doesn’t work at all. Then, at the opposite end are the Catholic nuns, who are already deterred. Finally, in the middle is the great mass of the public, those who are tempted to cheat on a tax return, to run a red light, to fudge on an application, and that’s the group that responds to deterrence to stay honest.”
So why is “Beyond Scared Straight” A&E’s most watched program?
“There’s a gut level attractiveness,” Finckenauer said. “An inside look at prisons, clanging doors, delinquent kids. It makes for great visual appeal and good sound bites. Also, there’s a great deal of frustration with perceived liberal treatment of young offenders.”
Perhaps adult viewers are vicariously experiencing their own “get tough on kids” viewpoint.
That’s where A&E’s “Scared Straight” programming could be harmful, I thought. It diverts public support from the evidence-based programs that do work, in the areas of prevention, intervention, diversion, mental health and family counseling. As juvenile judges, we were taught that sanctions for kids should be swift, certain, and appropriately severe. Parents are taught the same in parenting classes. Why then would we think that the opposite would work? “Beyond Scared Straight” makes a good TV program for adults, but it’s a lousy concept for keeping at-risk kids out of trouble.
What at-risk kids need are jobs. Jobs will keep them out of prison while a 'scared straight' experience won't. Jobs dignify them, put legal money in their pockets, and provide mentoring and career goal opportunities. It's the employer, small or large businessman, non-profit executive, teacher or community volunteer whose lives they should be experiencing, not the convicted, imprisoned felon.
Given the Disney channel’s financial success with the “Beyond Scared Straight” series, why don’t we challenge Disney to donate a portion of its profits to one of the foundations that does so much for at-risk kids such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Eckerd Family Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or the Henry and Ryla White Foundation? Any of these worthy foundations could design a practical program to provide jobs for at-risk kids. They would also put the money to good use in proven programs that truly do turn around at-risk kids.
What about that, Disney?