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Scared Crooked

Do Scared Straight programs work?

When teenagers get into trouble, what should their parents do? A couple of months ago, a father wrote to Dear Abby with that very question. His 16-year-old daughter had become a "nightmare," he said, skipping school, using drugs, and not listening to anyone. Later, readers weighed in with their advice. One woman, who signed her letter, Brittany in the South, had a suggestion: the father should send his daughter to a Scared Straight program. "Sometimes a rude awakening is the answer for a young person traveling down the wrong path," she said.

It is not surprising that Brittany thought of the Scared Straight program, given the amount of publicity it has received. In 1978, an award-winning documentary depicted one of the first scared straight programs. At-risk teens were taken to a state prison in New Jersey and harangued by hardened inmates, who tried to show them what prison life was really like. In 1999 another documentary, Scared Straight! 20 Years Later aired on television, extolling the virtues of the program. Currently, there is a program on the A&E network called Beyond Scared Straight, which, according to the web site for the show, "profiles dramatic prison and jail deterrence programs aimed at keeping today's at-risk teens from becoming tomorrow's prisoners."

There is only one problem: Scared Straight programs don't work. Actually, it's worse than that: They do more harm than good. Several well-designed studies have been conducted, in which at-risk youth were randomly assigned to take part in Scared Straight programs or to a control group that did not, and then all the kids were followed to see whether they got into trouble. (A good summary of these studies can be found here.) These studies found that the kids who took part in the scared straight programs were subsequently more likely to engage in criminal activity by 1 to 30 percent, with an average increase of 13 percent. As I note in my book, Redirect, the New Jersey program is ongoing and has served more than 50,000 kids. "Let's do the math," I said. "Using the 13 percent figure, we can estimate that the program has caused 6,500 kids to commit crimes they would not otherwise have committed."

Why do scared straight programs backfire? No one knows for sure, but there are at least two possibilities. First, many of the kids who participate probably were not that inclined to join gangs or commit crimes to start with. Having convicts yell in their faces and tell them about prison rape may make them think, paradoxically, "Joining a gang must be pretty attractive if the authorities are going to such extremes to scare me out of it." Second, there is evidence that bringing at risk teens together can backfire, because they try to impress each other about how tough they are. Think about it—many 15-year-olds care much more about what their peers think of them than what authority figures want them to do.

What, then, should the distraught father who wrote to Dear Abby do? As Abby suggested, he should have his daughter evaluated by a psychologist to see if she is suffering from depression or another disorder. School-based programs that encourage kids to engage in community service have been shown to work, by making alienated teens feel more connected to their communities. Mentoring programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters have also been shown to be effective.

The bottom line is that when it comes to helping teenagers, or solving many other social and psychological problems, we can't assume that common sense solutions work. Some do, but some don't, and some even backfire. We must test them first. And, just because something is shown on TV doesn't mean that it works. I hope that the father who wrote to Dear Abby doesn't take Brittany's advice and enroll his daughter in a Scared Straight program.

More from Timothy D. Wilson Ph.D.
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More from Timothy D. Wilson Ph.D.
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