New ‘Scared Straight’ Series Backs Discredited Strategy

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Supporters and critics of “scared straight” programs – which generally entail youths visiting prisons and prisoners in hopes that the experience will change their delinquent behavior – will take up battle this week in the court of public opinion for the first time since 1999.

The reason: On Thursday, the A&E cable channel premieres a new reality show “Beyond Scared Straight,” which follows scared straight participants in three states.

On one side of the national scared straight debate are federal officials, juvenile justice researchers and advocates, who say the strategy has been proven time and again to be ineffective.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice is “critical of the dangerous misinformation about Scared Straight in this series,” said CJJ Executive Director Nancy Gannon Hornberger in a statement issued tonight. “There is absolutely no basis for pointing to it as a helpful approach. The idea of scaring youth into good behavior has been soundly disproven. We urge A&E to point, instead, to productive approaches that truly address and eliminate causes of delinquency.”

On the other side is Arnold Shapiro, a television producer with major hits such as “Rescue 911” and the U.S. version of “Big Brother” to his credit, who told Youth Today that he favors his own common sense about the programs he profiles over any research about scared straight programs, even though he hasn’t read any of it.

“Judges and probation officers would not keep sending kids through [scared straight] if they were not seeing results,” Shapiro said. “They’d be fools, and they’re not. I would love anyone who has done these studies to tell me why these people keep sending kids if it doesn’t work.”

An outsized opponent

One man and his cameras against the Justice Department might seem like an unfair match. But it was Shapiro’s 1978 documentary that coined the phrase “scared straight” and sparked adoption of the concept in more than 30 jurisdictions. 

His newest project is already showing signs of similar promulgation. Youth Today learned that this month, before the show has even aired, one state juvenile justice director was contacted by several members of the state legislature who were curious whether the state could start a scared straight program.

There is no National Association of Scared Straight Programs, or any central organization that nurtures the growth and proliferation of such programs. The strategy evolved in the late 1960s at California’s San Quentin Prison.

By the late 1970s, officials at a number of facilities were involved in using inmates’ horror stories about prison life to help troublemaking kids visualize the end of the line for criminals. Shapiro said professionals he has seen initiate a prison visit for youth include police officers, probation officers, teachers, social workers, youth counselors and school principals.

True believers

Officials at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison were, and still are, among the believers in the approach.

“This original program generated media attention and a television documentary touting a 94 percent success rate,” said former Florida juvenile justice secretary Anthony Schembri, whose 2006 white paper stops short of outright opposing scared straight programs but says that “scaring kids straight is one of the programs that warrants intense scrutiny under the light of research.”

Nonetheless, according to Schembri’s research, Shapiro’s documentary sparked “replication attempts in 30 jurisdictions, reporting success rates between 80 percent and 90 percent.”

Shapiro caught up with the youths for follow-up documentaries in 1987 and 1999. In the latter follow-up, according to interviews with the now-30somethings, 14 of the 17 told Shapiro and his crew they had turned out to be “good,” meaning they had stayed out of criminal activity since the “scared straight” experience.

One youth had served time for bookmaking well before the 1999 film, and one was dead from a drug overdose. The other subject of the original documentary is still in prison for armed robbery.

“He … said he wanted to be a professional thief,” Shapiro said. “I gotta give him credit, he achieved it.”

Hyperbolic promotion

The new A&E iteration, “Beyond Scared Straight,” is a seven-part reality series on A&E. that follows youths who participate in programs in South Carolina, California and Maryland. In each state, the series focuses on five youths during their preparation for a visit to a state prison; the visit itself; and the attitude of the youth a month afterward.

There are two types of youths featured in the series, Shapiro said. The first are at-risk: “They don’t have an arrest record yet, not gotten into serious trouble,” but are engaged in behavior that “can lead to serious trouble.” Most often, he said, that is drugs/drinking or regular truancy.

The second type is “criminally active kids” who “perhaps are already in the juvenile [system], or perhaps were expelled and are in an alternative school.”

Shapiro maintains he is not in the trenches for scared straight every day. He is a filmmaker; but four times now, he has visited and then re-visited the work to make documentaries.

But he sees the 14-of-17 figure with the original Rahway youth as measurable evidence of the value of scared straight, and representative of what he saw with participants in the new series.

A&E promotes the new show thusly: “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.”

Shapiro’s anecdotal evidence and A&E’s boastful affirmation of it are the central drivers of scared straight’s critics. In contrast, research on the strategy suggests that it frequently does nothing to lower the likelihood of participants offending or re-offending.

“ ‘Countless,’ ” Georgia state juvenile justice specialist Joe Vignati said, repeating the word used in the A&E promotion. “I’d like to see that research. That’s something A&E needs to substantiate or remove” from the show’s promotions.

What the studies found

Researchers have produced a few broad analyses of evaluations done on specific scared straight programs. All have suggested the same thing: the programs do not lower future offending, and in the case of some programs or some types of offenders, the effect has been to increase offending.

The most recent research, a meta-analysis done by Campbell Collaboration, looked at evaluations of nine scared straight programs. All of the evaluations used to generate the Campbell report were randomized control studies that took similarly situated youths and either exposed them to a scared straight program or nothing at all.

The Campbell finding: “The analyses show the intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing. The program effect, whether assuming a fixed or random effects model, was nearly identical and negative in direction, regardless of the meta-analytic strategy.”

That report and others were good enough to convince one fairly influential player in juvenile justice policy: the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Former Florida director Anthony Schembri suggested in his white paper that OJJDP has a “firm position” against funding scared straight programs. That’s actually not true,  Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski said in an interview.

“We don’t have a written policy or prohibition” on scared straight programs, Slowikowski said. But he could not remember much funding for such programs since he arrived at OJJDP in the 1990s, and this week the office issued the following position statement to Youth Today:

The evidence over many years has demonstrated that Scared Straight-type programs are ineffective, an inefficient use of funds and, in fact, are potentially harmful to the kids in these programs. Many studies have demonstrated that youth participating in these programs have higher future arrest rates then youth not participating.  As a result, these programs may actually jeopardize public safety.

Questioning results

Shapiro said he is well aware of the existence of critical research.

“I have so many questions about these studies,” he said. “When were they done? How much follow-up did they do? Which programs did they look at? Every program is different.”

Despite those questions, Shapiro said he has never read any of the research.

“I don’t understand that,” Vignati said. “How would you not look at the research yourself? I salute he’s trying to bring attention to ‘let’s prevent crime.’ But this is not effective, the research is pretty clear here.”

When told by Youth Today that the most recent evaluation of a scared straight program occurred in the early 1990s, Shapiro said, “If the last one was 20 years ago, that’s ludicrous and we shouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

The Campbell study, initially published in 2002, includes evaluations from the following years: 1967, two from 1979, two from 1981, 1982, 1983, 1986, and 1992.

Shapiro said the programs he sees today are more nuanced than the ones that likely existed in the late 1980s. Back then, Shapiro said, many of the programs “didn’t even talk to kids. It was all scare tactics and threats.”

Now, he said, the visit to prison is typically one part of a larger intervention that includes discussion about the day with the youth and his family.

“Each program is different. They all have a talking component,” which he said also existed at the initial Rahway program.

Some people who recognize the poor performance of scared straight programs seemed to overlook the evidence when it came to programs in their backyards, telling Youth Today that local programs they knew about had generally performed well.

For example, California juvenile justice advocate Dan Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, let out a groan when he learned about the new A&E show. But then he mentioned that his conversations with Bay Area youth have led him to believe that San Quentin’s SQUIRES program was helpful.

A 1983 evaluation of SQUIRES was included in the Campbell study: It found that 81 percent of program participants were arrested compared with 67 percent of a control group.

Managing Editor John Kelly may be reached at jkelly@youthtoday.org.

  • dave gaspar

    During my career in both the adult and juvenile corrections business, we started and ended a Scared Straight Program. I do not believe that there was ever an evaluation done on the program, however as a professional in the field, I do not believe that these programs offer any positive value to individuals (youth) who are well on their way to the jj systems. If there is a population where some good may come, it would be as a general preventative strategy of providing a heighten awareness of the systems of justice for youth mot yet considered at risk.

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