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Why Scaring Kids Out of Committing Crimes Doesn't Work

There's enough evidence to say, definitively, that "scared straight" programs don't stop young people from going on to become criminals, and might even be counterproductive. So why are they still in use?

Illustration via Flickr user Roy Blumenthal

America's love affair with frightening kids into obeying the law took off in earnest in 1978, when Scared Straight!, a film that follows juvenile offenders as they get a harsh preview of prison life from inmates, received the Academy Award for best documentary. The movie inspired a wave of similarly themed youth-intervention programs across the country, and as various sequels and television spinoffs remained popular throughout the 80s and 90s, criminal justice analysts began studying whether these programs' results backed up the hype.


In 2002, criminal justice and education expert Dr. Anthony Petrosino and a team of researchers conducted a comprehensive analysis of the various "scared straight" studies out there, and found that not only do these appeals fail to deter kids from breaking the law, they sometimes make young people more likely to commit crimes. While the Department of Justice no longer funds these types of programs, many localities and families around the nation continue to spend their own money terrifying young people about crime in spite of the evidence that it may cause more harm than it prevents. A scared-straight-based TV show even went on the air in 2011 amid petitions and criticism.

I spoke with Dr. Petrosino to get his take on why scared straight programs refuse to die.

VICE: What first made you skeptical about scared straight's efficacy?
Dr. Anthony Petrosino: I was skeptical because a professor of mine at Rutgers studied the original scared straight program at the Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, and he found not only that the program didn't have any positive impact, but kids who went through scared straight did a lot worse that the kids who got nothing. I had that in mind when I realized that we'd never seen a rigorous review of all the studies done on scared straight. So we synthesized Rickenhauer's experiment, along with eight others, to look across all of them and see if there was any pattern. The pattern was pretty consistent: On average, scared straight had a harmful effect on kids versus kids who didn't get it. In the studies with crime data, the kids who went through scared straight were much more likely to be arrested or brought to juvenile court than kids in the control group.


Why do you think scared straight continues to be practiced despite your research and other studies?
There's a lot of interest in a low-cost panacea. Jurisdictions that want [scared straight] aren't getting federal money for it, but it's so cheap to implement that doing it on their own dime isn't discouraging them at all. It also has a "common sense" appeal: A lot of people believe that if you get tougher with kids in particular, but also with adults, that you're going to deter them. The evidence for that is not all that strong, but it fits with these common-sense notions. In some jurisdictions, community support can be strong due to particular examples, like one kid being turned around. There'll be people such as parents, ministers, concerned siblings who call me and say, "Hey I brought a kid to scared straight and they turned around." That's great! There are kids who'll be helped by any intervention. You could cherry-pick any kid who did well in DARE or in boot camps. The question for policymakers is, does the program help more kids than it hurts?

At the government level, you have to look at the broader range of the population. We can't identify who would be successful in scared straight; we can't say, "Only these eight kids fit the profile of those who would be successful." There's no way to do that. It has to be a program that on aggregate has positive effects or at least isn't doing any harm. [And] even if it's harmless, there's a cost in that there's opportunity lost—something better could be taking its place. In this case, it seems we're spending bad money after bad; we're using an intervention that's harmful, in hopes of reducing crime, but we're actually inspiring more crime.


Since many people seem to hold up these anecdotal examples as proof of Scared Straight's success, do you think there's a tendency to blame juveniles who reoffend after Scared Straight for their own behavior, rather than looking at harmful impacts of the program itself?
I could see it, in the same sense that we often times blame the victim. Right now we have a big problem with homicide in inner cities. Many people in the public associate young men who live in inner cities with risky behaviors, and racial and ethnic bias have a lot do with that. Many more young people have died in the inner city this year than at Newtown or school shootings, but the energy around solving it is much, much less; I think because of who those kids are, kids of color, and some feeling of their own culpability in it. I don't know if that translates to scared straight, but it wouldn't surprise me if some people held those views.

It reminds me of DARE—it's a great idea, bring cops into the classroom to teach a curriculum on drug abuse, and lo and behold, kids will stop using or experimenting. Studies have shown that it's hasn't had much of an impact on drug use, but despite the evidence, a lot of jurisdictions have kept DARE. In the same way I think scared straight may satisfy a feeling of, "We're doing something," rather than nothing, and it doesn't cost the jurisdiction a ton of money, and we're giving inmates a chance to redeem themselves, which is always a nice story.


Do you think the popularity of the television program reinforces this idea that SS works?
Without a doubt. The show reaches a ton more people than any journal article or report that I've done. In fact, after that show came out in 2011 there was a lot more interest in the program and a revival of this strategy.

What other forms of intervention have you found are more successful than SS?
The justice system has a lot of discretion about whether to divert or process low-level offenders. For juveniles who've done something like vandalism or burglary, maybe it's not serious enough to warrant juvenile court or facility. What we've found in our review, and what's been held up by other studies, is that diversion with services, including counseling, education, and employment, seems to be very effective. That's one strategy. Another is cognitive behavioral therapy, which attempts to restructure an offender's thinking about the distortions they hold which support their offending behavior, and has shown very positive effects.

Can you explain the psychological mechanics behind Scared Straight and why they don't work as advertised?
One theory out there is peer contagion theory: kids who are more inclined to be law abiding will be influenced in these groups by more deviant peers. Scared straight is a group intervention; kids don't go in by themselves. That's one possibility that's raised when interventions like this backfire. Other people think as kids go through scared straight, particularly the harsher forms of it where inmates are yelling at them, they don't really perceive it as a threatening outcome that's likely to happen to them. The kids themselves think they're not going to be caught, so they see people behind bars as being losers, and they may even be further emboldened or inspired to do something [criminal]. But there's been no firm tests with data that shows why this sort of [approach] is wrong.

One study found that juvenile offenders have post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate comparable to Iraq War veterans. Might that explain why scared straight doesn't work, because it attempts to treat trauma with more potential trauma?
For whatever reason, and I don't know what the mechanism is, when we try to get harsher, it seems to backfire. We did a systematic review in 2010, looking at studies in which kids were either diverted from the [juvenile justice] system or officially processed through [it]. It's uncanny that in those 27 to 29 experiments, kids who were diverted out of the system did much better if they got services versus going through the formal juvenile court process. The kids who got nothing, diverted to go home to their parents with no treatment, even did slightly better than those who went through the formal juvenile court! That's amazing, because then it's a helluva lot cheaper to just send the kid home rather than process them. That's a cost savings for juvenile justice authorities; to be able to divert more kids out instead of putting through them a formal process.

Even on the adult side, people studied the length of prison terms and found a negative impact: the people getting the longer sentences, all things being equal, are doing worse when they get out than people who get lesser sentences. There's kind of a pattern of results which I think for the most part people are feeling now; even Democrats and Republicans are coalescing around this idea that we're punishing too many people, especially nonviolent people, too harshly. The Democrats are saying it's unfair, and the Republicans are saying it's too costly. They're [both supporting] adult and juvenile justice reform for the first time that I can remember in my lifetime.

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