“Scared Straight” programs are all talk

by Sparky Harlan

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

“Scared Straight”, the popular 1978 documentary by Arnold Shapiro, has been brought to television as “Beyond Scared Straight.” I avoided watching the new reality television series because all the research shows the scare tactics of taking kids to jail for a day does not work. I was hoping that after one season the show would die and just go away. Unfortunately, it is back for a new season.

How does “Beyond Scared Straight” work? It is easy. You handcuff a few kids, take them on a tour of a jail, and let guards and prisoners scream at them all day until they break. After, the kids go home and never commit a crime again.

Of course, this is the desired end result. In reality, the television series does a follow-up with kids after 30 days and finds that some of the youth report that they have changed, while others say nothing has changed. The show I watched followed up with four kids after 30 days; two said their behavior had improved and two said nothing had changed. Not a very good success rate for 30 days later. I would guess that another follow-up after 90 days might show even worse results.

After “Scared Straight” became popular in the 1970s, a number of research reports evaluated children who went through the program compared to control groups and found that many of the youth who attended “scared straight” programs were actually worse off than the youth who had no intervention.

The kids that are successful with the scared straight program are the minor offenders, those who are labeled “at risk”, who would have improved without any intervention. We know more about teenage behavior and brain development since the 70s. We now know that most teenagers who commit minor crimes grow out of the behavior. The young brain does not fully develop until the mid 20s and impulse control is weak, at best, in the teen years.

I hope the juvenile advocates keep up the debate on the “Beyond Scared Straight” series. I hate to see limited resources for proven effective youth services be siphoned off for another round of bad practices. Politicians love to cite these scared straight programs, but they are about as effective as the marriages from The Bachelor series.


The post above is reprinted with permission from San Jose Inside.

Sparky Harlan has been Executive Director/CEO of the Bill Wilson Center in Santa Clara County for 28 years. Serving over 10,000 youth and their family members every year, the Bill Wilson Center services include counseling, housing, education, and prevention. Her expertise includes working with runaway and homeless youth, foster youth, and youth involved with the justice system. Bill Wilson Center operates under guiding principles that permeate most of her blogs.
Sparky is currently on the boards of American Leadership Forum, The Housing Trust (serving as Secretary), and is the chairperson of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Commission. She holds a Masters in Nonprofit Management. She is a nationally recognized leader in youth services, most recently receiving the Executive Leadership Award of Excellence from the National Network for Youth.


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