This spring a group of "troubled" children from Washington, D.C.'s Evans Middle School were taken on a visit to the D.C. Jail. The school's director of in-service suspension, who arranged the jail visit, said, "I wanted some of the kids to experience the jail-you know, the clink-clink, the bars." The visiting students-some as young as 13-were intimidated by guards, strip-searched, forced to undergo a body-cavity search, and left in the presence of a masturbating inmate-all so they would be "scared straight."
The Scared Straight program-founded in 1976 at New Jersey's Rahway State Prison-remains one of the most popular "intervention" methods for dealing with troubled teens. But does it work?
A 1979 documentary on the program, which depicted tough teens being reduced to quivering masses by big, scary inmates, won an Academy Award and two Emmys. The producers of the show claimed an 80 to 90 percent success rate, and the race to bring Scared Straight to a city near you was on. Legislators around the country couldn't wait to implement such programs to eradicate the scourge of juvenile delinquency. The concept continues to thrive around the country.
But many studies have belied the success claims of Scared Straight. "Youths attending the programs consistently did worse than those who did not," wrote James O. Finckenauer in his 1999 book Scared Straight: The Panacea Phenomenon Revisited. He's not alone in this assessment. According to Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General released earlier this year, successful prevention programs "target specific populations of young people as defined by risk and life experience, build individual skills and competencies, include parent effectiveness training, and encourage changes in type and level of involvement in peer groups." Not exactly a description of the Scared Straight approach.