Scared Straight Programs Research Paper

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“Scared Straight” and other programs involve organized visits to prison by juvenile delinquents or children at risk for criminal behavior. Programs are designed to deter participants from future offending through firsthand observation of prison life and interaction with adult inmates.

Drawing on the findings from a recently updated systematic review, this research paper describes these programs and examines the research evidence on the effects of these programs on delinquency. This research paper shows that not only do these programs fail to deter crime but they actually increase it. Government officials permitting this program need to adopt rigorous evaluation to ensure that they are not causing more harm to the very citizens they pledge to protect.


In the 1970s, inmates serving life sentences at a New Jersey (USA) prison began a program to “scare” or deter at-risk or delinquent children from a future life of crime. The program, known as “Scared Straight,” featured as its main component an aggressive presentation by inmates to juveniles visiting the prison facility. The presentation depicted life in adult prisons, and often included exaggerated stories of rape and murder (Finckenauer 1982). A television documentary on the program aired in 1979 provided evidence that 16 of the 17 delinquents remained law abiding for 3 months after attending “Scared Straight” – a 94 % success rate (Finckenauer 1982). Other data provided in the film indicated success rates that varied between 80 % and 90 % (Finckenauer 1982). The program received considerable and favorable media attention and was soon replicated in over 30 jurisdictions nationwide, resulting in special Congressional hearings on the program and the film by the United States House Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Human Resources (Petrosino et al. 2000).

Programs such as “Scared Straight” are based on deterrence theory. Advocates and developers of these programs believe that it is possible to use these realistic depictions of life in prison and/or presentations by inmates to deter juvenile offenders (or children at risk for becoming delinquent) from further (or initial) involvement with crime. Although the harsh and sometimes vulgar presentation in the earlier New Jersey version is the most famous, inmate presentations are now sometimes designed to be more educational than confrontational but with a similar crime prevention goal (Finckenauer and Gavin 1999). Programs that feature interactive discussions between youth and inmates as speakers who describe their life experiences and the current reality of prison life have a rather long history in the United States (Michigan D.O.C. 1967). It is not surprising such programs are popular: They fit with common notions of how to prevent or reduce crime (by “getting tough”); they are very inexpensive (a Maryland program was estimated to cost less than $1 US per participant); and they provide one way for incarcerated offenders to contribute productively to society by preventing youngsters from following down the same path (Finckenauer 1982).

A randomized controlled trial of the New Jersey program published in 1982, however, reported no effect on the criminal behavior of participants in comparison with a no-treatment control group (Finckenauer 1982). In fact, Finckenauer reported that participants in the experimental program were more likely to be arrested following the program. Other randomized trials reported in the United States also questioned the effectiveness of “Scared Straight”–type programs in reducing subsequent criminality (Greater Egypt Regional Planning and Development Commission 1979; Lewis 1983). Consistent with these findings, reviewers of research on the effects of crime prevention programs have not found deterrence-oriented programs like “Scared Straight” to be effective (Lipsey 1992).

Despite the convergence of evidence from studies and reviews, “Scared Straight”–type programs remain popular and continue to be used in the United States (Finckenauer and Gavin 1999). For example, a program in Carson City, Nevada (USA) brings juvenile delinquents on a tour of an adult Nevada State Prison (Scripps 1999). One youngster claimed that the part of the tour that made the most impact on him was “All the inmates calling us for sex and fighting for our belongings” (Scripps 1999). The United Community Action Network has its own program called “Wisetalk” in which at-risk youth are locked in a jail cell for over an hour with four to five parolees. They claim that only 10 of 300 youngsters exposed to this intervention have been rearrested (United Community Action Network 2001). In 2001, a group of guards – apparently without the knowledge of administrators – strip-searched Washington, DC students during their tours of a local jail under the guise of that they were using “a sound strategy to turn around the lives of wayward kids” – claiming the prior success of “Scared Straight” (Blum and Woodlee 2001).

 “Scared Straight” and other “kids visit prison” programs are not unique to the United States. For example, it is called the “day in prison” or “day in gaol” in Australia (O’Malley et al. 1993), “day visits” in the United Kingdom (Lloyd 1995), and the “Ullersmo Project” in Norway (Storvoll and Hovland 1998). Hall (1999) reports positively on a program in Germany designed to scared straight young offenders with ties to Neo-Nazi and other organized hate groups. The program has been also tried in Canada (O’Malley et al. 1993). A recent television program (Banged Up) aired in the United Kingdom depicting their version of the program (Blunkett 2008; Wilson and Groombridge 2010).

In 1999, “Scared Straight: 20 Years Later” was shown on United States television and claimed similar results to the 1979 film (Muhammed 1999). In this version, the film reports that 10 of the 12 juveniles attending the program have remained offense free in the 3 months follow-up (Muhammed 1999). As in the 1979 television program, no data on a control or comparison group of young people were presented. Positive reports and descriptions of Scared Straight–type programs have also been reported elsewhere (e.g., in Germany [Hall 1999], and in Florida [Rasmussen 1996]), although it is sometimes embedded as one component in a multicomponent juvenile intervention package (Trusty 1995; Rasmussen 1996).

In 2000, Petrosino and his colleagues reported on a preliminary systematic review of nine randomized field trials, drawing on the raw percentage differences in each study. They found that programs such as “Scared Straight” generally increased crime between 1 % and 28 % in the experimental group when compared to a no-treatment control group. In 2002, a formal Campbell review was published (simultaneously with the Cochrane Collaboration) – updating the 2000 work and utilizing more sophisticated meta-analytic techniques. They reported similarly negative findings for Scared Straight and juvenile awareness programs. This research paper provides an update of these earlier reports, extending searches to cover literature published through 2011.

Despite the results of this review and updates, Scared Straight and similar programs continue to be promoted as a crime prevention strategy. For example, Illinois’ then-Governor Rod Blagojevich signed a bill into law in 2003 that mandated the Chicago Public School system to set up a program called “Choices” (United Press International 2003). The program would identify students at risk for committing future crime and set up a program to give them “tours of state prison” to discourage any future criminal conduct (United Press International 2003). More recently, the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) station has been running a weekly series entitled, “Beyond Scared Straight.” Created by the producer of the original Scared Straight program (Arnold Shapiro), the program is now the highest rated in A&E’s history. The success of the television show has renewed interest in Scared Straight and similar programs as a crime prevention strategy (e.g., Dehnart 2011) but has also resulted in criticism that it ignores a long history of scientific evidence (e.g., Robinson and Slowikowski 2011). The Puerto Rico Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also launched the “Loving Freedom” program, an intervention designed to imitate Scared Straight (Mullen 2012).

The question about whether Scared Straight and similar programs has a crime deterrent effect is best answered by examining the existing scientific evidence. Of course, prior research is no guarantee that interventions will work (or not work) in a future setting, but a reader might ask herself the following question upon reading the results of the aforementioned systematic review: Would I want a doctor to prescribe a treatment for my child that has the same track record of research results?


The findings reported here are based on the most recent update of the Campbell and Cochrane Collaboration reviews on the subject. In these reviews, studies were only included if they used random (or seemingly – quasi-random) procedures to assign participants to treatment and control groups. The control must not have received another prevention program. Furthermore, only studies that involved juveniles i.e., children 18 years of age or under) or overlapping samples of children and young adults (i.e., ages 13–21) were included. Studies could have included delinquents, pre-delinquents, or non-delinquent youths. Studies also were required to include a visit by program participants to a prison facility as a part of the intervention. Most of the included studies involved inmate presentations (Finckenauer 1982; Cook 1992), and they sometimes featured orientation sessions and prison tours. Finally, studies had to include at least one outcome of subsequent offending behavior. This outcome was measured by indices such as arrests, convictions, contacts with police, and self-reported offenses. Further information on the methodology and search methods is available in the original review.

Narrative Findings

Collectively, the nine included studies from the systematic review were conducted in eight different states of the United States, with Michigan the site for two studies (Yarborough 1979; Michigan D.O.C. 1967). No set of researchers conducted more than one experiment. The studies span the years 1967–1992. The first five studies located were unpublished and were disseminated in government documents or dissertations; the remaining four were found in academic journal or book publications. The average age of the juvenile participants in each study ranged from 15 to 17. Only the New Jersey study included girls (Finckenauer 1982). Racial composition across the nine experiments was diverse, ranging from 36 % to 84 % white. Nearly 1,000 (946) juveniles or young adults participated in the nine experimental studies. A narrative description of the included studies follows.

In an internal, unpublished government document, the Michigan Department of Corrections (1967) reported a trial testing a program that involved taking adjudicated juvenile boys on a tour of a state reformatory. Unfortunately, the report is remarkably brief. Sixty juvenile delinquent boys were randomly assigned to attend two tours of a state reformatory or to a no-treatment control group. Tours included 15 juveniles at a time. No other part of the program is described. Recidivism was measured as a petition in juvenile court for either a new offense or a violation of existing probation order. The Michigan department of Corrections found that 43 % of the experimental group re-offended, compared to only 17 % of the control group. This large negative result curiously receives little attention in the original document.

Another program at the Menard Correctional Facility (GERP&DC 1979) started in 1978 and is described as a frank and realistic portrayal of adult prison life. The researchers randomly assigned 161 youths aged 13–18 to attend the program or a no-treatment control. The participants were a mix of delinquents or children at risk of becoming delinquent. Participants were compared on their subsequent contact with police, on two personality inventories (Piers-Berne and Jesness) and surveys of parents, teachers, inmates, and young people. The outcomes are also negative in direction but not statistically significant, with 17 % of the experimental participants being recontacted by police in contrast to 12 % of the controls (GERP&DC 1979). The authors concluded that “based on all available findings one would be ill advised to recommend continuation or expansion of the juvenile prison tours. All empirical findings indicate little positive outcome, indeed, they may actually indicate negative effects” (p. 19). Researchers report no effect for the program on two attitude tests (Jesness Inventory, Piers Harris Self-Concept Scale). In contrast, interview and mail surveys of participants and their parents and teachers indicated unanimous support for the program (p. 12). Researchers also note how positive and enthusiastic inmates were about their efforts.

In the Juvenile Offenders Learn Truth (JOLT) program (Yarborough 1979), juvenile delinquents in contact with one of four Michigan county courts participated. Each juvenile spent 5 total hours in the facility. Half of this time was spent in a confrontational “rap” session. This followed a tour of the facility, during which participants were escorted to a cell and exposed to interaction with inmates (e.g., taunting). In the evaluation, 227 youngsters were randomly assigned to JOLT or to a no-treatment control. Participants were compared on a variety of crime outcomes collected from participating courts at 3 and 6-month follow-ups. This second Michigan study reported very little difference between the intervention and control group (Yarborough 1979). The average offense rate for program participants, however, was 69 % compared to 47 % for the control group. Yarborough (p. 14) concluded that, “.. .the inescapable conclusion was that youngsters who participated in the program, undergoing the JOLT experience, did no better than their control counterparts.”

The Face-to-Face program (Vreeland 1981) included a 13-h orientation session in which the juvenile lived as an inmate followed by counseling. Participants were 15–17 years of age and on probation from Dallas County Juvenile Court; most averaged two to three offenses before the study. A total of 160 boys were randomly assigned to four conditions: prison orientation and counseling, orientation only, counseling only, or a no-treatment control group. Vreeland examined official court records and self-reported delinquency at 6 months. This evaluation also reported little effect for the intervention (Vreeland 1981). Vreeland reported that the control participants outperformed the three treatment groups on official delinquency (28 % delinquent versus 39 % for the prison orientation plus counseling, 36 % for the prison only, and 39 % for the counseling only). This more robust measure contradicts data from the self-report measures used, which suggest that all three treatment groups did better than the no-treatment controls. None of these findings reached a level of statistical significance. Viewing all the data, Vreeland concluded that there was no evidence that Face-to-Face was an effective delinquency prevention program. He finds no effect for “Face-to-Face” on several attitudinal measures, including the “Attitudes Toward Obeying Law Scale.”

The New Jersey Lifers’ Program (Finckenauer 1982) began in 1975 and stressed confrontation with groups of juveniles ages 11–18 who participated in a rap session. Finckenauer randomly assigned 82 juveniles, some of whom were not delinquents, to the program or to a no-treatment control group. He then followed them for 6 months in the community, using official court records to assess their behavior. Finckenauer reported that 41 % of the children and young people who attended the “Scared Straight” program in New Jersey committed new offenses, while only 11 % of the controls did, a difference that was statistically significant (Finckenauer 1982). He also reported that the program participants committed more serious offenses and that the program had no impact on nine attitude measures with the exception of a measure called “attitudes toward crime.” On this measure, experimental participants did much worse than controls. We deal with Finckenauer’s own concerns about randomization integrity in a sensitivity analysis, which is reported later.

The California SQUIRES Program (Lewis 1983) is supposedly the oldest such program in the United States, beginning in 1964. The SQUIRES program included male juvenile delinquents from two California counties between the ages of 14 and 18, most with multiple prior arrests. The intervention included confrontational rap sessions with rough language, guided tours of prison with personal interaction with prisoners, and a review of pictures depicting prison violence. The intervention took place 1 day per week over 3 weeks. The rap session was 3 h long, and normally included 20 youngsters at a time. In the study, 108 participants were randomly assigned to treatment or to a no-treatment control group. Lewis compared participants on seven crime outcomes at 12 months. Lewis reported that 81 % of the program participants were arrested compared to 67 % of the controls. He also found that the program did worse with seriously delinquent youths, leading him to conclude that such children and young people could not be “turned around by short-term programs such as SQUIRES.. .a pattern for higher risk youth suggested that the SQUIRES program may have been detrimental” (p. 222). The only deterrent effect for the program was the average length of time it took to be rearrested: 4.1 months for experimental participants and 3.3 months for controls. Data were reported on eight attitudinal measures, and Lewis reported that the program favored the experimental group on all of them, again underscoring the difficulty of achieving behavioral change even when positively affecting the attitudes of juvenile delinquents.

The Kansas Juvenile Education Program (Locke et al. 1986) was designed to educate children about the law and the consequences of violating it. The program also tried to roughly match juveniles with inmates based on personality types. Fifty-two juvenile delinquents (ages 14–19) from three Kansas counties were randomly assigned while on probation to KEP or a no-treatment control. The investigators examined official (from police and court sources) and self-report crime outcomes at 6 months. Locke and his colleagues reported little effect of the Juvenile Education Program. Both groups improved from pretest to posttest, but the investigators concluded that there were no differences between experimental and control groups on any of the crime outcomes measured. Investigators also reported no effect for the program on the Jesness and Cerkovich attitude tests.

Project Aware (Cook and Spirrison 1992) was a nonconfrontational, educational program comprising one 5 h session run by prisoners. The intervention was delivered to juveniles in groups numbering from 6 to 30. In the study, 176 juveniles (ages 12–16) under the jurisdiction of the county youth court were randomly assigned to the program or to a no-treatment control. The experimental and control groups were compared on a variety of crime outcomes retrieved from court records at 12 and 24 months. Little difference was found between experimental and control participants in the study. For example, the mean offending rate for controls at 12 months was 1.25 for control cases versus 1.32 for Project Aware participants. Both groups improved from 12 to 24 months, but the control mean offending rate was still lower than the experimental group. The investigators concluded that, “attending the treatment program had no significant effect on the frequency or severity of subsequent offenses” (p. 97). The investigators also reported on two educational measures: school attendance and dropout. Curiously, they report an effect for the program on school dropout data, but not that “.. .it is not clear how the program succeeded in reducing dropout rates.. .” (p. 97).

The only positive findings, though not statistically significant, were reported in Virginia (Orchowsky and Taylor 1981). The Insiders Program (Orchowsky and Taylor 1981) was described as an inmate-run, confrontational intervention with verbal intimidation and graphic descriptions of adult prison life. Juveniles were locked in a cell 15 at a time and told about the daily routine by a guard. They then participated in a 2-h confrontational rap session with inmates. Juvenile delinquents from three court service units in Virginia participated in the study. The investigators randomly assigned 80 juveniles ages 13–20 with two or more prior adjudications for delinquency to the Insiders program or a notreatment control group. Orchowsky and Taylor report on a variety of crime outcome measures at 6-, 9-, and 12-month intervals. Although the difference at 6 months was not statistically significant (39 % of controls had new court intakes versus 41 % of experimental participants), they favor the experimental participants at 9 and 12 months. The investigators noted, however, that the attrition rates in their experiment were dramatic. At 9 months, 42 % of the original sample dropped out, and at 12 months, 55 % dropped out. The investigators conducted analyses that seemed to indicate that the constituted groups were still comparable on selected factors.

Most of the studies dealt with delinquent youths already in contact with the juvenile justice system. All of the experiments were simple two-group experiments except Vreeland’s evaluation of the Texas Face-to-Face program (Vreeland 1981). Only one study used quasi-random alternation techniques to assign participants (Cook 1992); the remaining studies claimed to use randomization although not all were explicit about how such assignment was conducted. Only the Texas study (Vreeland 1981) included data from self-report measures. In two studies (Cook 1992; Locke et al. 1986), no post-intervention offending rates were reported. Also, the follow-up periods were diverse and included measurements at 3, 6, 9, 12, and 24 months.

The results of the meta-analysis presented in the systematic review are further evidence of the harmfulness of these programs. The review reported the crime outcomes for official measures at the first-effect or first follow-up interval (and usually the only) period reported. Each analysis focused on proportion data (i.e., the proportion of each group re-offending), as the outcomes reporting means or averages is sparse and often does not include the standard deviations. Thus, because the data rely on dichotomous outcomes, analyses used the odds ratios (OR) as the measure of program effect, contrasting the odds of crime in the treatment program relative to the control.

The analysis of the data in comparison Fig. 1 from the seven studies reporting reoffending rates shows that intervention increases the crime or delinquency outcomes at the first follow-up period. The mean odds ratio across studies assuming a random effects model indicates an overall harmful effect of these programs (mean odds ratio ¼ 1.72, 95 % confidence interval of 1.13–2.62). Thus, the intervention increases the odds of offending (Fig. 1).

Scared Straight Programs Research Paper

These randomized trials, conducted over a 25-year period in eight different jurisdictions, provide evidence that “Scared Straight” and other “juvenile awareness” programs are not effective as a stand-alone crime prevention strategy. More importantly, they provide empirical evidence that these programs likely increase the odds that children exposed to them will commit offenses in future. Despite the variability in the type of intervention used, ranging from harsh, confrontational interactions to tours of the facility converge on the same result: an increase in criminality in the experimental group when compared to a no-treatment control. Doing nothing would have been better than exposing juveniles to the program.

Converging Evidence

Other reviews also examined the efficacy of “Scared Straight” and similar programs. A meta-analysis of juvenile prevention and treatment programs by Lipsey (1992) found a small negative effect for 11 “shock incarceration” and “Scared Straight” programs, with the experimental groups having a 7 % higher recidivism rate than controls relative to a 50 % recidivism baseline. Gendreau and his colleagues (1997) also reported a meta-analysis of “get tough” or “get smart” sanctions. These included interventions designed to deter future crime like “Scared Straight” as well as interventions designed to punish or control offenders at less cost such as intensive supervision while on probation or parole. The reviewers computed correlations of program participation and recidivism outcomes. Examining 15 experimental or quasi-experimental evaluations of Scared Straight–type programs, they also found a small negative (harmful) effect (average correlation of 0.07). Simply put, participating in the program was associated with an increase in crime.

Possible Controversies In The Literature

This evidence places the onus on every jurisdiction to show how their current or proposed program is different than the ones studied here. Given that, they should then put in place rigorous evaluation to ensure that no harm is caused by the intervention. Some literature indicates the program can have a positive effect on the inmate providers and that argument is sometimes used to legitimize use of the program. These arguments are undoubtedly used under the assumption that the program does no harm. In light of these findings, assertions that “Scared Straight” and similar programs ought to be used because it achieves other things raises ethical questions about potentially harming children (and others in the community who may be victimized) in order to accomplish other important, but latent, goals.

Petrosino and colleagues have received communications from different prison facilities that are using a juvenile awareness program. One argument these programs make to sustain using such programs is that the research reported here does not apply to their particular program. One recommendation here is that correctional research units, either at the facility or at a regional or national government level, collaborate with program staff to conduct a rigorous evaluation. If such units do not exist or cannot conduct their own study, they should collaborate with a local university, college, or research firm that could undertake this work to ensure that the program is working as planned and not unintentionally causing more harm than good. The findings, however, across a diversity of programs, jurisdictions, and samples (in conjunction with the converging evidence from other reviews) suggests that the fundamental concept behind Scared Straight and other juvenile awareness programs may be flawed.

Open Questions

One question that continues to arise about these findings is why “Scared Straight” and similar programs seem to lead to more crime rather than less in its participants. What is the critical mechanism? Understanding why something works or fails is of great interest to evaluators, program designers, and criminological theorists. Holley and Brewster (1996), evaluators for the Oklahoma “Speak Outs” program, wondered about the criminogenic effect of these programs when they asked:

If one argued that a two hour visit cannot perform the miracle of deterring socially unacceptable behavior .. ., it can also be argued that it was extremely simplistic to assert that a two hour visit can perform the miracle of causing socially unacceptable behavior. (p. 130)

Although there were many good post hoc theories about why these programs had negative effects, the evaluations were not structured to provide the kind of mediating variables or “causal models” necessary for an empirical response to this question in a systematic review.

Another key question concerns why these programs continue to be used. The research evidence to date indicates that these programs simply do not work. Despite this evidence, these programs continue to be used. This concern is particularly problematic given the recent paucity of high-quality research studies evaluating these programs. Why do policymakers continue to implement programs that are found to be harmful?

Arnold Shapiro (cited in Dehnart 2011) criticized the studies reviewed here because none of them were reported after 1992. “Scared Straight” has evolved and is now a very different program, and two decades have passed since that last study was published. This further reinforces the need for jurisdictions using this strategy to conduct rigorous evaluation, but it is difficult to obtain funding from agencies because Scared Straight is viewed as a failed strategy for youth.


The research on Scared Straight–type programs cannot predict with certainty that every such program will fail or – worse yet – lead to harmful effects on juvenile participants. But, the prior evidence indicates that there is a greater probability than not that it will be harmful. Would you permit a doctor to use a medical treatment on your child with a similar track record of results?

Despite the gloomy findings reported here and elsewhere, “Scared Straight” and its derivatives continue in use, although a randomized trial has not been reported since 1992. As Finckenauer and Gavin (Finckenauer 1999) noted, when the negative results from the California SQUIRES study came out, the response was to end the evaluation – not the program. Today, the SQUIRES program continues, evaluated by the testimonials of prisoners and participants alike. Despite evidence, belief in the program’s efficacy continue. Middleton and his colleagues report on the extension of this strategy in one UK town to scare ordinary schoolchildren by using former correctional officers to set up a prisontype atmosphere in the public school system (Middleton et al. 2001). In 1982, Finckenauer called this the “Panacea Phenomenon,” describing how policymakers, practitioners, media reporters, and others sometimes latch onto quick, short-term, and inexpensive cures to solve difficult social problems (Finckenauer 1982). Others claim that the program by itself is of little value but could be instrumental if embedded in an overall multicomponent package of interventions delivered to youths. More recently, the success of the A&E program, Beyond Scared Straight, has increased enthusiasm for this program as a crime prevention strategy.

It may be true that Scared Straight and like programs do not work because they only convey a threat that juveniles do not think will be carried out. What about the evidence for deterrence when it is not an inmate providing a third-party threat but the juvenile system officially processes the youth? There have been a wide range of randomized trials that test for the effects of official processing in juvenile courts with some other intervention (such as diverting the kid from such processing). Is there evidence that the delivery of a threat – official system processing – deters future criminal behavior? In 2010, Petrosino, et al. examined 29 randomized trials that evaluated the effects of some diversionary alternative (services or outright release) and compared it to official processing or progression deeper into the juvenile justice system. That review, published by the Campbell Collaboration, also indicated that formal system processing or progression had no crime deterrent effect, and in some instances increased crime in contrast to diversionary alternatives. In addition, formal processing is a more expensive approach than most diversionary programs, and coupled with the crime reduction effect, could result in some savings for jurisdictions (Petrosino et al. 2010). This review indicates that the delivery of a threat (official processing) did not deter future juvenile offending, compared to doing nothing, and actually reported worse outcomes than if the youth was assigned to a diversionary program with services.


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