Long before contemporary reality television appeared, the 1978 Scared Straight documentary had people across the country glued to their television sets as it broke new ground for on-air grit and profanity.
The central characters included a drug dealer, an arsonist and a car thief — all serving life sentences in prison — who screamed at juvenile offenders about the realities of prison life in an attempt to deter them from continuing their lawless behavior.
Besides winning an Oscar for Outstanding Documentary Feature, the program was lauded for supposedly steering its subjects away from criminal activity. According to its producers, very few of the children who appeared in the film ended up becoming felons as adults.
Due to the popularity of the Scared Straight and its four sequels, many similar interventions sprang up across the country. Like the original, they brought at-risk youth into prisons for tours and discussions with inmates. Some even integrated the youth into the prison population for a period of time, where they might be threatened or sexually propositioned by other inmates.
Unfortunately, studies of such interventions have indicated that they not only fail to deter criminal activity in program participants, but they actually harm them. In fact, a systematic review (Petrosino, Buehler, and Turpin-Petrosino, 2013) concluded that such programs actually increased the delinquency of participants significantly.
There are several theories as to why such programs do not seem to work as expected. The first is that the prefrontal cortex of the adolescent brain is not fully developed, which means that their capacity for goal-oriented behavior, delayed gratification, impulse control and risk assessment is underdeveloped. Thus the adolescents in the Scared Straight program may understand that certain choices are bad, but still fail to suppress their impulses.
The second theory holds that, for deterrents to be effective, the negative consequence must be certain and must occur quickly after the undesired behavior. Parents of young children understand this: if you do not punish certain behaviors consistently and immediately, kids will do whatever they think they can get away with. Scared Straight may convince some juvenile offenders that prison is an unpleasant place, but it does not convince them that they will definitely end up there if they do not stop committing crimes.
John Wilson, a 28-year veteran of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, explained Scared Straight's failures this way:
"These are real kids put into an abusive and frightening setting. Many are going to be traumatized. Others, the hard core delinquents, will actually think it is pretty cool. They will identify with the prisoners. They think: I'm tough. I can fit."
So what interventions do work to prevent juvenile recidivism?
A 2009 study by Mark Lipsey of Vanderbilt University, The Primary Factors That Characterize Effective Interventions With Juvenile Offenders: A meta-analytic overview, analyzed 548 studies spanning several decades. It covered interventions in several categories: counseling, deterrence (like Scared Straight), discipline, multiple coordinated services, restorative programs (asking forgiveness of victims), skill building, and surveillance.
Deterrence and punishment-based interventions actually increased criminal activity, while counseling, skill building and multiple coordinated services seemed to show the most significant effect in preventing recidivism. When he examined the different kinds of counseling and skill building interventions, Lipsey found that cognitive-behavioral therapy was the most effective.
As Lipsey writes of CBT:
"One of the most notable characteristics of criminal offenders is distorted cognition — self-justificatory thinking, misinterpretation of social cues, displacement of blame, deficient moral reasoning … Cognitive-behavior therapy is based on the assumption that cognitive deficits and distortions characteristic of offenders are learned rather than inherent. Programs for offenders, therefore, emphasize individual accountability and attempt to teach offenders to understand the thinking processes and choices that immediately preceded their criminal behavior."
Despite mounting evidence of their ineffectiveness, Scared Straight type programs persist around the country, and a new series Beyond Scared Straight just aired its sixth season this summer. At this point, the television show should be dismissed as part of prison-themed entertainment.
Prison life has long been a favorite subject of novels, movies and stage plays. From HBO's hit Oz, which ran from 1997 to 2003 to the Netflix sensation Orange is the New Black, and Fox's Prison Break, which is being rebooted after a 6 year hiatus, writers have found prison life a versatile canvass on which to tell their stories.
It is fair to say that much of America is curious about or even fascinated by prison. But shows like Scared Straight also appeal to our desire for a single and relatively straightforward intervention to solve an extremely complex problem.
Taking some at risk youth to visit a prison is not very difficult. Teaching them the skills to evaluate and control their emotions and learn to think about their long-term best interests is a much more daunting task. Families and churches must do that training. Join me in advocating that so an entire generation will be straight.