Beyond “Scared Straight” – Moving to Programs that Actually Work

by Laura Nissen

juvenile-justice-reform_youth-in-hoodieIn the last couple of decades, we’ve seen an explosion of research that tells us what works in adolescent substance abuse treatment and in helping kids caught in the juvenile justice system turn their lives around. As a result, foundations and lawmakers have raised their expectations: quite rightly, they want to fund "what works."

Which is why it’s maddening to see "Scared Straight" held up as a model for juvenile justice on national television in "Beyond ‘Scared Straight,’" a multi-episode series on A&E that premieres on Thursday, January 13, 2011.
 
The original "Scared Straight" program, in which a group of adult prison inmates attempted to terrify a group of teen offenders into "going straight," was the focus of a television special in 1978. Since then, the authors of "’Scared Straight’ and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency (Review)," a 2002 meta-analysis of relevant research on nine such programs, found that "not only does it fail to deter crime, but it actually leads to more offending behavior."
 
That’s right: "Scared Straight" increases the chance that youth will reoffend, compared to doing nothing. This is retro-programming that went out with other ill-advised approaches years ago. We need to move forward on this issue – not backwards. 

 
Thankfully, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) won’t fund Scared Straight programs, or anything like them, because of the lack of research support. And several states, including Oregon, the state I live in, now require that all or a large portion of state monies funding juvenile justice programming must go to evidence-based programs. 
 
But when an ineffective intervention program like "Scared Straight" is showcased on television, we can expect that there will be pressure to replicate it in communities across the country. That’s a travesty, and not just because it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars. Investing in ‘Scared Straight’" means investing in ruining the lives of teens across the country – and creating more crime victims.   
 
Rather than focusing on shaming and terrorizing youth to deter them from future crime, we should invest instead in the variety of treatment, supportive services, and community-based recovery support services that teens in the juvenile justice system need to be successful.  
 
One way to do that is to invest in Reclaiming Futures (which is backed by national evaluation results from The Urban Institute and Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago). Our approach helps communities do a better job of getting teens the treatment and community connections they need to be successful for the long term. And a core principle of our work has always been that communities that truly care about their kids should invest in what’s been shown to work.
 
But what do you think? Should A&E air a show like "Beyond ‘Scared Straight?’"
 
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.’
 
Updates September 2012:
1. Scared Straight continues to air on A&E. 
2. Laura Burney Nissen is now a special advisor to Reclaiming Futures, while Susan Richardson is the National Executive Director.
 

juvenile-justice-reform_Laura-NissenLaura Burney Nissen, M.S.W., Ph.D. is the national program director for Reclaiming Futures. She has led the initiative through conceptualization, demonstration and dissemination. As national program director, Laura has written extensively about the lessons of the initiative, and is a regular speaker at national meetings on juvenile justice reform. Laura has worked with state and federal agencies to encourage system-wide recognition and use of strength-based methods for youth. She is also an associate professor at Portland State University’s School of Social Work, where her research focuses on qualitative research methods, system reform issues, and communication tools for social change.

 

 

 

Photo at top: Adam Foster | Codefor.