Scared Straight Programs Closed in 2 of 3 Series’ States

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Critics of the controversial “scared straight” approach had feared that the popular new television show about the strategy might spark a proliferation of new programs. Now, it appears the efforts of some of those critics might swing things the other way.

Of the three states where episodes of A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight” are filmed – California, Maryland and South Carolina - two suspended their scared straight operations in January. California is reviewing whether its program violates federal juvenile justice requirements, and Maryland is reviewing the effectiveness of its program.

South Carolina has not stopped its program. A decision on the future of its scared straight operation will likely come after its new corrections chief, former judge Bill Byars, is the full state senate next week.

Byars was the head of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice before new Gov. Nikki Haley (R) nominated him to lead corrections.  

“Scared straight” programs are typically operated with the help of prisoners in adult facilities, who aim to demonstrate what prison-life is like in the hope that the knowledge will deter young people from committing crimes. It evolved in the late 1960s at California’s San Quentin Prison, and by the late 1970s, officials at a number of facilities were involved in using inmates’ horror stories about prison life.

The strategy proliferated further in 1978 when producer Arnold Shapiro produced the “Scared Straight!” documentary, which followed 17 youths as they participated in a program at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison.

But studies in the 1980s and 1990s indicated that scared straight programs do little to curb future offending, and some evaluations suggested the certain programs increased offending over youths in a comparable control group.

Shapiro, who told Youth Today last month that he has never read that research, developed  “Beyond Scared Straight” with A&E. The show debuted with an hour-long episode at a California women’s prison; it set an A&E record for a series premiere with 3.7 million viewers.

California closed its program before the series premiere on Jan. 13. Maryland suspended its program in late January, the same week that a column written by Department of Justice officials criticizing the strategy appeared in the Baltimore Sun.