Scared Straight: Don’t Believe the Hype (Facts from CJJ)

by Tara Andrews and Idit Knaan

Note: Reclaiming Futures is not affiliated with the A&E television show, “Beyond ‘Scared Straight,'” and it does not support the “Scared Straight” intervention.

[The following fact sheet was released by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) in response to the A&E television network’s decision to air “Beyond ‘Scared Straight,'” a reality TV show about teens being yelled at and shamed by adult prison inmates in an attempt to scare them “straight.” Don’t miss CJJ’s position statement here, and an editorial from Laura Nissen, “Beyond ‘Scared Straight’ – Moving to Programs that Actually Work,”  –Ed.]

juvenile-justice-reform_CJJ-logoFirst introduced in the 1970s as a “hard-hitting” way to prevent juvenile delinquency, Scared Straight programs became popular before being thoroughly evaluated. Three subsequent decades of research show that programs premised on Scared Straight approaches are ineffective, counterproductive and costly.
    • Scared Straight is not an effective crime prevention strategy. Randomized trials in the United States, including an analysis of the original New Jersey Scared Straight program, reveal no effect on the delinquent/criminal behavior of participants who went through the program when compared with those who did not.[1] More explicitly, a comprehensive “What Works” report to the U.S. Congress in 1997 of more than 500 crime prevention evaluations listed Scared Straight under “what does not work.”[2] 


  • Scared Straight has been shown to lead to increased offending: Scared Straight programs not only fail to deter crime, but have been shown to result in increased juvenile offending when compared with no intervention.[3]  Research shows that Scared Straight-type interventions increase delinquent outcomes by 1% to 28%. Youth who went through such programs had higher rates of re-offending than youth who did not go through the programs.[4]

    • Scared Straight is cost-inefficient: Scared Straight style programs typically cost less than $100 per child. Yet, research by the Washington State Institute on Public Policy found that for every $80 spent on such programs, taxpayers and crime victims pay an additional $14,000 associated with youths’ recurring contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  On the plus side, family/community-connected delinquency prevention strategies have been show to save the public between $5,000 and $78,000 per youth and avoid costs for court services, policing and care of victims.[5]


    • Scared Straight programs may cause state and local violations of federal law and regulations. The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) prohibits court-involved youth from being detained, confined or otherwise having contact with adult inmates in jails and prisons.[6] In keeping with the JJDPA, and supported by research, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice does not fund Scared Straight programs, and cites such programs as potential violations of federal law.


    • Policymakers and delinquency prevention practitioners must spend limited public monies wisely Even when programs operate with good intentions, public officials, practitioners and providers must be diligent in their efforts to evaluate services and treatment provided to youth to ensure that public resources are used in ways that are effective; helpful not harmful; and truly lead to lasting community safety.[7] 


For more information, email Tara Andrews, or phone her at 202-467-0864, ext. 109. You can also join CJJ  on Facebook.
[Editor’s Update August 2011: in spite of overwhelming research evidence and opposition from juvenile judges, federal officials, and juvenile justice experts,  A&E Television is airing a new series of episodes of Beyond ‘Scared Straight.’]

Tara Andrews serves as the Deputy Executive Director for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ). Idit Knaan is a Program associate at CJJ.


[1] “Scared Straight Programs: Jail and Detention Tours,” Anthony J. Schembri, Secretary Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, pg. 4.


[2] Sherman, L.W., Gottfredson, D, MacKenzie, D.L., Eck, J., Reuter, P., Bushway, S. (1997). “Preventing Crime: What works, what doesn’t, what’s promising. A report to the United States Congress.” College Park, MD: University of Maryland, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.


[3] Petrosino Anthony, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, and John Buehler. “‘Scared Straight’ and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency” (Updated C2 Review). The Campbell Collaboration Reviews of Intervention and Policy Evaluations (C2-RIPE), November, 2003. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Campbell Collaboration. See also “Scared Straight Programs: Jail and Detention Tours,” Anthony J. Schembri, Secretary Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (2006).


[4] “Scared Straight Programs: Jail and Detention Tours,” Anthony J. Schembri, Secretary Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, pg. 6.


[5] Washington State Institute for Public Policy. “Evidence-based Juvenile Offender Programs: Program Description, Quality Assurance, and Cost,” June 2007.


[6] Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, Pub. L. No. 93-415, 88 Stat. 1109 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 5601 et seq. (2002)), § 223(a)(12) and § 223(a)(13).


[7] “Scared Straight Programs: Jail and Detention Tours,” Anthony J. Schembri, Secretary Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, pg. 10.