U.S. Department of Justice: Scared Straight is “Scary and Ineffective”

by Benjamin Chambers

juvenile-justice-reform_young-woman-with-scissors-at-her-eye"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.’




Photo: LunaDiRimmel.




0 thoughts on “U.S. Department of Justice: Scared Straight is “Scary and Ineffective”

  1. James Lopez

    What is the prefered method involving inmates and at risk youth? Are there training seminars and or a lesson plan to be effective for both offender and at risk youth?

  2. Benjamin Chambers

    Hi James – great question. At this stage, there’s really a number of different interventions that are effective (nothing works for everyone). The best guide I can suggest is the Model Programs Guide from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which shows different interventions, depending on where a youth is in the system — i.e., at the front-end, or further in.

    As a general rule of thumb, sanctions alone are not as effective as sanctions & treatment — cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps people literally change how they think and feel, has been consistently shown to be very effective in helping youth and adult offenders make positive changes in their lives.

    Hope this helps.


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