Scary -- and ineffective

Traumatizing at-risk kids is not the way to lead them away from crime and drugs

January 31, 2011|By Laurie O. Robinson and Jeff Slowikowski

"Scared straight" programs have long been wildly popular in this country as a get-tough response to juvenile crime. They typically involve bringing at-risk youths into an adult prison, where they are confronted — in shocking and brutal fashion — by adult inmates. These programs may include tours of the facility and personal stories from prisoners and may even integrate the youths into the prison population for up to a day. Experiencing the harsh reality of life behind bars is thought to deter kids from a life of crime by frightening them into changing their behavior.

The A&E Network is currently airing "Beyond Scared Straight," a series highlighting four of these programs across the country. A recent episode followed five youths who were brought to the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup, which houses more than 1,000 inmates. These youths came face to face with what the A&E website described as "menacing inmates, including convicted murderers, [who] surround the kids and taunt them." The network portrays such programs as effective in keeping youths from becoming lifelong criminals.

Unfortunately, the research tells us otherwise: "scared straight" is not only ineffective but is potentially harmful. And it may run counter to the law.

Anthony Petrosino and a team of researchers from the Campbell Collaboration, an international research network, analyzed the findings from evaluations of nine scared straight-type programs. In contrast to the claims of proponents, Mr. Petrosino and his colleagues found that these programs did not deter teenage participants from offending; in fact, they were more likely to offend in the future. Across the evaluated programs, participants were up to 28 percent more likely to offend than youths who didn't participate. To add insult to injury, a number of youths reported to evaluators that adult inmates sexually propositioned them and tried to steal their belongings. Not only was scared straight found not to deter criminal behavior, the study strongly suggested the program caused harm.

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.

In light of this evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice discourages the funding of scared straight-type programs. States that operate such programs could have their federal funding reduced if shown not to have complied with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

So what does research tell us about what does work? Mentoring programs have been found to be effective in reducing incidents of delinquency, substance use and academic failure in participating youth. Mentoring is a process that uses positive relationships to teach, impart or institute changes in a youth's behavior or attitudes. Research has shown that mentoring relationships that last at least 12 months or through an entire school year are most effective. Further, youth in long-term mentoring relationships tend to improve their self-esteem, social skills and outlook about their future.

The Department of Justice has supported mentoring programs for more than 30 years as a primary prevention tool to address juvenile delinquency. Not surprisingly, research suggests that offering at-risk youth a relationship with a positive role model has more benefit than scaring them with a negative one.

It is understandable why desperate parents hoping to divert their troubled children from further misbehavior would place their hopes in a program they see touted as effective on TV, and why in years past policymakers opted to fund what appeared to be an easy fix for juvenile offending. However, we have a responsibility — as both policymakers and parents — to follow evidence, not anecdote, in finding answers, especially when it comes to our children.

Laurie O. Robinson is assistant attorney general for the federal Office of Justice Programs. Jeff Slowikowski is acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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