National Juvenile Justice Experts: Invest in Proven Strategies, Not “Scared Straight”

by Nancy Gannon Hornberger

[The following position statement 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." Be sure to check out CJJ’s fact sheet, Scared Straight: Don’t Believe the Hype, and Laura Nissen’s editorial, "Beyond ‘Scared Straight’ – Moving to Programs that Actually Work." –Ed.]

 

juvenile-justice-reform_CJJ-logoWashington, D.C. – The Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), a national association of Governor-appointed state advisory groups on juvenile justice and allies, questions the value of the A&E series, “Beyond Scared Straight,” scheduled to begin airing on Thursday, January 13, 2011. The planned series highlights an intervention that purports to turn children and youth away from delinquent and criminal behavior. In fact, such approaches, explains CJJ, are shown to have the opposite of the desired effect and to increase delinquency.
 
“Started years ago with good intentions, ‘Scared Straight’ approaches have now been well-evaluated and shown to have a damaging rather than positive impact,” according to David Schmidt, CJJ National Chair and President of New Mexico Council on Crime and Delinquency. “Research makes it clear that youth exposed to adult inmates, particularly in prison or jail settings, are at heightened risk of emotional harm and anxiety and receive harmful messages that lead to increased potential for them to commit delinquent offenses.[1] Intentionally exposing youth to these risks, even for a short period of time in a controlled environment, is profoundly counterproductive.” 

 
Such approaches are also cost-inefficient. Scared Straight 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 in expenses associated with the youths’ recurring contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Family/community-connected delinquency prevention approaches, including intensive case management, counseling and treatment may cost more in the short-term, but are far less costly and more effective for public safety, over the long-term, saving the public between $5,000 and $78,000 per youth, and avoiding costs for courts, policing and care of victims.[2]
 
“When considering delinquency prevention approaches of value, especially given tight public budgets, it is essential to take a hard look at the research,” says Nancy Gannon Hornberger, CJJ Executive Director. “While we are pleased to see primetime coverage focusing on prevention and reduction of delinquency, CJJ is critical of the dangerous misinformation about Scared Straight in this series. There is absolutely no basis for pointing to it as a helpful approach. The idea of scaring youth into good behavior has been soundly disproven. We urge A&E to point, instead, to productive approaches that truly address and eliminate causes of delinquency.” 
 
CJJ is also concerned that “Scared Straight” programs cause violations of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which strongly limits youth contact with adult inmates. “The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice has long refused to allow federal funds to be used for Scared Straight programs, as they have potential to violate federal law that mandates separation between youth and adult inmates in jail and prison settings,” says Joe Vignati, Director of Justice Programs at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in Georgia, and National Juvenile Justice Specialist on the CJJ Board. “Here in Georgia and across the states, we endeavor to adhere to this federal law, which is explicitly designed to recognize developmental differences between youth and adults and reduce risks of physical and emotional harm to youth.” 
 
CJJ urges A&E and the show’s producers to make room in the series, or otherwise, for  meaningful opportunities to highlight the related research, this particular intervention’s shortcomings, and the many approaches proven to produce better results with at-risk and delinquent youth. Contrary to the program’s marketing, the Scared Straight approach is neither new nor effective. First introduced in the 1970s as a “hard-hitting” way to prevent juvenile delinquency, Scared Straight programs became widespread before being thoroughly evaluated. Three subsequent decades of research, however, show that not only is there no effect on the behavior of youth exposed to Scared Straight in comparison with those who are not, but Scared Straight participants are actually more likely to be arrested afterwards.[3] 
 
 
[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.’]
 

 


Nancy Gannon Hornberger serves as Executive Director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ). CJJ is the national association of state advisors on juvenile justice appointed by the Governors/chief executives of all states, territories and the District of Columbia, and also includes allied individuals who share the organization’s goals. Click on her name to email her or phone her at 202-467-0864, ext. 111, or via cell/text at 301-602-1266.


[1] Forst, Martin, Jeffrey Fagan, and T. Scott Vivona. (1989) “Youth in Prisons and Training Schools: Perceptions and Consequences of the Treatment-Custody Dichotomy.” Juvenile and Family Court Journal 39:1.

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

[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).