What are Scared Straight Programs and Do They Work?

By Cynthia Sass (byline) Trying to prevent teenagers from taking part in risky behavior and using alcohol and/or drugs can be a challenging undertaking. Many parents, and the community at large, have invested a great deal of time and effort in exploring how to ensure kids grow up happy, healthy and without the negative consequences of having violated the law or abused drugs and alcohol. Despite these efforts, some kids do not respond to traditional methods of deterrence. For these young people, parents and caregivers turn to alternative, and sometimes radical, methods to keep kids on track. An example of such radical methods are scared straight programs.

What is Scared Straight?

Ironically, scared straight programs are the brainchild of a group of prison inmates who were serving life sentences in the mid-1970s. Their intent was to counsel young offenders, or kids who were on the path to becoming inmates themselves, and prevent them from breaking the law and ending up in prison. Unfortunately, the role of inmate-counselor often deteriorated into one of doomsayer, rife with yelling, intimidation and threats of impending doom if the teen should continue to offend and wind up serving time in prison with hardened criminals. Proponents of this approach believed that the scare tactics would work, and the program was born. Scared Straight later gained popularity when a documentary covering the program aired on television. Within a short time, scared straight programs popped up throughout the country, and by 1980, more than 13,000 teens had participated.

Do Scared Straight Programs Work?

It may seem like opening a kid’s eyes to the dangers that lie ahead if they continue risky behavior would curb the desire to be reckless. When nothing else appears to work, maybe scaring them will. Who wouldn’t be afraid of winding up in an arguably dangerous environment, such as living in a small cell surrounded by hardened criminals who appear to be a threat? Parents, community members and lawmakers sent tens of thousands of teenagers to scared straight programs around the country with that very thought in mind, and hopes for positive outcomes for their kids. But rather than straightening up and miraculously turning over a new leaf, more than 40% of the participants were later arrested for new crimes. According to studies, participants of scared straight programs are far more likely to continue committing crimes and using illicit substances than those who do not. Some studies even showed that scared straight programs are counterproductive, and even harmful to the participants. Researchers are not sure of the main reasons for this phenomenon, but cite some potential causes such as induced trauma, negative peer influence created by placing groups of offenders together, and increased excitement and attention because so much emphasis is placed on not engaging in the undesired behavior. Even though the causal connection is not clear, the data reveals that scared straight programs do not tend to work for most participants.

Beyond Scared Straight

Even if scared straight programs might not be the answer, there are still alternatives out there for kids who may be more resistant to deterrents. One such alternative is social psychology. It uses evidence-based interventions that focus on changing how the participant views him or herself and their environment, and changing self-narratives from negative to positive.   Sources: Justice Department Discourages the Use of “Scared Straight” Programs Intuition is not evidence: Prescriptions for behavioral interventions from social psychology COMMUNITY-BASED RECOVERY AND YOUTH JUSTICE

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