The Many Things Wrong with A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight” Program
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 spinoff 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 (NCJFCJ) in New York City in July. Finckenauer, author of Scared Straight! and the Panacea Phenomenon Revisited, 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?”
Less Scared Straight, More 'Talk Therapy'
The other day I watched the A&E program Beyond Scared Straight for the first time. I'm familiar with the original 1979 Academy Award winning documentary, Scared Straight!, that inspired many states across the country to institute similar programs in an attempt to deter juveniles already involved with the criminal justice on some level from a future life of imprisonment. These kids are taken on a tour of a jail and introduced to prisoners who recount horror stories of their time behind bars. The hope is that once given a taste of the grim reality of prison life, these 13-19 year old kids will want to go "straight" and avoid incarceration. Executive produced by the director of the original, Arnold Shapiro, this new "reality" series is the highest rated original program in A&E's history.
The show has been met with harsh criticism. In an op-ed for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, director of Justice Programs at Governor's Office for Children and Families in Georgia, Joe Vignati wrote: "The scared straight approach is an inappropriate and unacceptable means for disciplining children. This approach has been shown to cause short -and long-term harm and actually INCREASES the likelihood of re-offending among some participants."
A January op-ed for the Baltimore Sun titled "Scary -- and ineffective," written by Laurie O. Robinson and Jeff Slowikowski, two Justice Department officials, sites research that says those who participated in a scared straight type program were 28 percent more likely to offend than youths who had not participated. The Campaign for Youth Justice is calling for the show to be pulled from A&E.
In the episode I saw, there was a young man named Brandon who lived in Detroit. Brandon sported a tattoo on his right forearm of a skull and the word "Heartless" underneath and said he lived by the creed "MHD," which stands for "Money, Hoes, Drugs." Money brings women, and drugs bring money, Brandon explained. The worst he had ever done, he admitted, was shoot someone.
"Beyond 'Scared Straight'" Program “Incoherent” According to Conflict Management Expert
The premier episode of the new season of the controversial reality show, “Beyond Scared Straight,” adheres to the themes that made it A&E’s most watched show: a small group of at-risk youth spend the day in prison where they are yelled at, intimidated and humiliated by sheriff’s deputies and inmates alike. The screaming and threats of prison rape are followed by emotional conversations with the inmates as they describe to the teens where they went wrong and how the teens can avoid the same fate.
The episode features Mecklenburg County, N.C.’s “Reality Program,” created by Sheriff Daniel “Chipp” Bailey.
“Our Reality Program stresses education, not intimidation,” Bailey is quoted as saying on the program’s website.
According to the website, the mission of the program is to “provide the community with a program which will help educate young people about the long-term effects of participating in criminal activity.”
After watching the show, non-violent communication and conflict management expert Dr. Heather Pincock was baffled.
“There is no coherent approach in the diversion program,” Pincock said. “Most of the episode they [the deputies] were there to intimidate the youth or break the youth down or humiliate them. Then they suddenly start saying. ‘We’re your friends, we’re here to help you.’ There are very mixed messages around their role. It doesn’t make any sense.”
On "Scared Straight" -- From a Personal Experience
I just watched the first episode of this season of A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight.” This was my first exposure to the show. JJIE.org has covered the details of this program and experts have weighed in about it in this space, from knowledgeable, yet slightly removed positions. [Scroll down for related posts on the Reclaiming Futures blog. -- Ed.]
For me, however, it was a strange and personal experience. Watching the show I was flooded by memories of my own time in prison, both as a young man and as an older prisoner in contact with “at-risk youth.” I felt waves of emotion, mostly negative, as I watched fear and intimidation used, along with a smattering of humane connection, to bring about change in these young people.
When I first arrived at the youth prison in Alto (a notorious prison at the time in north Georgia) in 1985, I was placed in a dorm. The officer told us that if we were fighting and refused to stop when he called “break,” he would “bust our ‘tater” with his billy club.
This same officer, after catching me in an infraction, had me squat and walk around the dorm, quacking like a duck. I did this because I feared refusing and facing more severe punishment. This memory came back to me as I watched a similar scene on the show. The use of mindless exercise as punishment seemed similarly sadistic to me. I do not recall that this experience had any positive effect on me. Conversely, I instead became more skilled at not getting caught.
"Beyond 'Scared Straight'" Returns to Promote a Discredited Juvenile Justice Intervention (Roundup)
Much to our dismay, A&E Network will air a second season of "Beyond 'Scared Straight,'" its hit reality-TV show, beginning August 18, 2011. As you may know, the program exposes a group of teens who've committed offenses to a group of adult prison inmates who scream, yell, and talk tough, in an effort to convince the kids to "going straight."
There's a lot of problems with this approach, but the chief one is this: it doesn't work. There's not a single piece of independent research that indicates it's effective, and quite a lot that shows it isn't -- in fact, an overview of nine studies shows that youth who participate are more likely to commit crimes than kids who don't. That may make for great television, but it's not good for the kids or our communities.
We've given a lot of coverage in the past to why "Scared Straight" is a bad idea, so I'll just link to it here:
- Beyond "Scared Straight" – Moving to Programs that Actually Work
- U.S. Department of Justice: Scared Straight is "Scary and Ineffective"
- Scared Straight: Don’t Believe the Hype (Facts from CJJ)
- Scared Straight -- or Just Scared? Judges Speak Out Against "Beyond 'Scared Straight'"
- "Scared Straight" Programs on Hold in Two States
Is the Juvenile Justice System "Improving Lives or Devastating Them?" and More: a Roundup
- Is the Juvenile Justice System "Improving Lives or Devastating Them?" U.S. Attorney General Asks
Attorney General Eric Holder wants to see the juvenile justice system shift from prosecution and punishment to prevention and intervention, as he made clear in a March 7th speech to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference. Among other things, he pointed to the evidence showing that "scared straight programs" are ineffective, and the high rate of sexual victimization of detained youth.
- States Try Fewer Youth in Adult Court
Only a few states -- New York and North Carolina among them -- continue to treat 16-year-olds as adults when it comes to the justice system. Money's an issue, because it's more expensive to try them in the juvenile justice system. However, a new analysis from the Vera Institute of Justice finds that the fiscal benefits outweigh the costs.
- States Back Away From Punitive Drug Laws
The high cost of imprisoning low-level drug offenders is adding momentum to efforts to reform punitive drug laws that incarcerate people without addressing their underlying treatment problem.
"Scared Straight" Programs on Hold in Two States
Prisons in Maryland and California have put their "Scared Straight" programs on hold in the wake of warnings from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that federal funding could be cut for states using the discredited intervention.
Two DOJ officials, including Jeff Slowikowski, the Acting Director of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), wrote in an editorial published last week that the "Scared Straight" program was "scary -- and inffective," and that it "could run counter to the law."
They cited studies showing that "Scared Straight" youth are more likely to commit new crimes.
U.S. Department of Justice: Scared Straight is "Scary and Ineffective"
"Traumatizing at-risk kids is not the way to lead them away from crime and drugs,"write Laurie O. Robinson and Jeff Slowikowski of the U.S. Department of Justice in a January 31st editorial published in The Baltimore Sun responding to A&E television network's reality show, "Beyond 'Scared Straight.'" (Hat tip to the Justice Policy Institute on Facebook.)
Robinson is assistant attorney general for the federal Office of Justice Programs (OJP), and Slowikowski is acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
They point to the research showing that "scared straight" programs actually make youth more likely to commit new crimes, not less. They go on:
"The fact that these types of programs are still being touted as effective, despite stark evidence to the contrary, is troubling. In the decades following the original scared straight program, states across the country developed similar models in the hopes that this get-tough approach would make an impact on their impressionable youth. As it turns out, the impact was not the one they had hoped for.
"Fortunately, in recent years, policymakers and criminal and juvenile justice practitioners have begun to recognize that answers about what works are best found in sound research, not in storytelling. Evidence from science provides the field with the best tool for sound decision-making. This 'smart on crime' approach saves taxpayer money and maximizes limited government resources — especially critical at a time of budget cuts."
We applaud them and the rest of the leadership at the Department of Justice for adding their voices of opposition to scared-straight programming for youth in the justice system. Their voices now join the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the National Council of Juvenile and Famliy Court Judges (NCJFCJ), the Campaign for Youth Justice, and of course Reclaiming Futures -- we're glad to see so many arrayed publicly against an intervention that wastes money and lives.
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.'
Scared Straight -- or Just Scared? Judges Speak Out Against "Beyond 'Scared Straight'"
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) is calling on A&E television network to stop misrepresenting the facts about the effectiveness of "Scared Straight" interventions with young people involved in the justice system. "Scared Straight" exposes youth in the juvenile justice system (from runaways to violent offenders) to adult prisoners, who intimidate, harrass, and humiliate the teens in an effort to scare them into "going straight." The intervention is now the subject of a reality show , "Beyond 'Scared Straight,'" on the A&E network.
In a statement published January 27, 2011, NCJFCJ wrote:
Although advertisements for the show claim Scared Straight! is "an effective juvenile prevention/intervention program," social science research clearly demonstrates the opposite. In fact, research strongly suggests Scared Straight! and similar programs have a harmful impact on youth and are associated with increased risk for continued delinquent/criminal behaviors. Further, it is clear these types of interventions as portrayed are neither developmentally appropriate nor trauma-informed.
The judges want "A&E to provide a meaningful opportunity to present the facts around Scared Straight! and similar programs." They have joined Reclaiming Futures, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the Campaign for Youth Justice, and many other juvenile justice advocates in their opposition to the program.
NCJFCJ's research arm, the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ), has also released a position statement, "Scared Straight or just Scared? The False Promise and Potential Danger of Scared Straight Programs for Youth." NCJJ takes the reality show to task because it "falsely claims that “Scared Straight” will result in better outcomes and less delinquency among youth participants" when research shows the opposite.
National Mentoring Month and More - a Roundup
January is National Mentoring Month
- Read the president's proclamation.
- Olivia's Story: one youth breaks free from drugs, alcohol, and crime. In case you missed it, we recently posted the moving story of a young woman, Olivia, and her journey out of a life of crime and drugs. She thanks a lot of people for helping her do it, but her mentor's among those at the top of the list. Check it out!
- Ideas for celebrating National Mentoring Month (including Thank-Your-Mentor Day, on January 25) from the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth (NCFY).
- More from NCFY:
- A "mentoring hub" consortium in Ohio that might give you ideas for streamlining recruitment and matching mentors to youth.
- A whole issue of the journal New Directions in Youth Development devoted to promising practices in youth mentoring.
- Funding: Tribal Youth National Mentoring Program from the Department of Justice (DOJ). Application deadline is February 28, 2011. There's also a National Mentoring Program grant from DOJ, but as I read it, it's only open to national organizations. Still, if you're eligible, check it out -- the deadline to apply is also February 28, 2011.