With violence, illicit drug abuse and related crime on the rise in the 1970’s, the United States began to focus its social policies on these issues. In addition, such social issues gained attention in popular media. In 1978, director Arnold Shapiro released a documentary entitled “Scared Straight,” which followed a group of juvenile delinquents who spent a day in a maximum security prison. The visit was coordinated with the prison to expose these juveniles to the harsh realities and consequences of crime through their interactions with the inmates and the prison environment. Ultimately, the goal was to deter the young offenders from committing crime in the future. That year, the documentary won an Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature” (14). As a result of the film, many states implemented “Scared Straight” programs targeting at-risk youth and juvenile delinquents. The programs consisted of prison tours where the participating youth were integrated into the prison population and heard personal accounts of inmates’ experiences. Often, prison inmates were instructed to dramatize their experiences and use intimidation as a tactic with the visiting youth. These sessions have been characterized as “shock probation,” traumatizing and at times, brutal. Anthony Schembri, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, visited a Scared Straight Program in a state prison and described the adolescents’ experiences as “an emotional roller coaster” (12).
After extensive research was conducted on the ineffectiveness of the intervention, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) publicly denounced the program. In addition, the OJJDP discontinued all federal funding for any Scared Straight program in 2011 (9). However, programs with a similar framework and purpose are still currently in operation. The continuation of this program framework is particularly troubling due to the abundance of empirical evidence showing its ineffectiveness (10). There are multiple flaws within the design of Scared Straight that can even make the program counterproductive in some cases. To begin with, the very nature of the visits presents at-risk youth with a threat to their literal freedom, which in turn invokes psychological reactance. This can result in the opposite of the intended effects of the program. Additionally, the intervention assumes a rational choice model in terms of the adolescents’ subsequent decisions as a result of their prison visits. This is especially problematic considering the target population’s general lack of emotional maturity and decision making skills. Finally, there are major implications for the socialization of at-risk youth into the prison culture through these sessions. These inherent flaws in the program prevent it from accomplishing its objectives.
Flaw 1: Scared straight invokes the wrong reaction.
The Scared Straight program exposes at-risk youth to incarceration as a potential consequence for criminal or deviant behavior. The major aspects of the prison experience that the youth are expected to process are the discomfort and degradation that inmates must endure. Also, there is an associated loss of personal control that results from being constantly monitored and dictated by prison authority figures. Adolescent visitors are given a schedule by which they must adhere to, similarly to the inmates. By matching the experience of the visitor so closely to that of the inmates, the program successfully presents the adolescents with a potential threat to their personal freedom. The prospect of ending up in prison is a literal threat to their freedom in addition to the loss of control and choice of behavior. According to social psychologist Jack Brehm, such threats can induce an unfavorable reaction. Brehm’s Theory of Psychological Reactance describes the cause and effect relationship as the following:
Whatever freedom is threatened…the resulting reactance leads to increased perceived attractiveness of that option. Thus, there may be two manifestations of the occurrence of reactance: actual attempts to restore freedom, and increased perceived attractiveness of the lost or threatened option (4).
Psychological reactance shows that there is an element of danger in showing at-risk youth the negative consequences of crime and deviance because it may actually create an appeal to this behavior. Among the principles of psychological reactance, Scared Straight programs act in accordance with that of dominance the most. I would argue that this exertion of authoritarianism also contributes to the potential for reactance on the part of the participating adolescents. Throughout the program, the participants come into contact with figures of official authority (prison guards) in addition to those of unofficial authority (convicted felons). Both parties exert their dominance over the adolescents who visit the prison.
As stated in the theory, reactance can result in an attempt to restore freedom. Among youth advocates, there has been concern that some youth may interpret such program tactics “as a challenge to their ability to escape the consequences these programs hope will act as deterrents” (13). In other words, the program efforts could potentially backfire and engender deviant behavior instead of deterring it. There is empirical evidence showing that the program has had ineffective and counterproductive results in the past; the most well known of which was a study conducted by The Campbell Collaboration. The authors completed a meta-analysis of seven randomized trials in order to examine the deterring effects of Scared Straight programs on juvenile delinquents and at-risk youth. The study found the program framework “to be more harmful than doing nothing” and the effect to be “nearly identical and negative in direction, regardless of the meta-analytic strategy” (11). These results confirm the notion of restoring freedom in psychological reactance and engaging in the actual behavior that is condemned. The study also reveals the unsuccessful outcomes of the program, which has major implications for those who implement it.
Flaw 2: Scared Straight assumes teenagers are rational beings.
The design of the Scared Straight program follows that of a rational choice model, which does not align properly with the target population. The objective is to expose the participating youth to the harsh consequences of criminal behavior in a way that is so jarring that the participants recall this experience in future decision-making. When confronted with the opportunity to engage in deviant behavior, the program experience will ideally be factored into one’s decision. The Health Belief Model, which explains health related behaviors, includes a cost-benefit analysis in the individual’s decision making process (2). This model, like many other individual behavioral models, assumes that the decision maker undergoes a rational weighing of costs and benefits. This is a potential weakness of the model when being applied to programs such as Scared Straight because it is not likely that the participants are rational beings. Additionally, the model assumes that the individual has the time and emotional maturity to go through this decision making process.
Scared Straight typically targets juveniles who have already committed a crime or those who are deemed “at-risk” youth. The majority of participants are males between the ages of 14-18 who come from areas with high prevalence of crime (11). If these young men are faced with the decision to engage in crime or not, it is unlikely that they will have the maturity or time to make a rational decision. The impact of socio-emotional context, brain development and pubertal maturation was examined in a study by the Department of Psychology at Temple University. After reviewing existing research, the study investigators found that “differential maturation in the structure and function of brain systems leaves adolescents particularly vulnerable to socio-emotional influences and risk-taking behaviors” (5). During adolescence, humans are still experiencing major changes and development in the brain and in the social context as well. Thus, the adolescents targeted by Scared Straight do not benefit from a rational choice model due to their cognitive developmental level and other influences. The program takes on a very simplistic view of behavior by assuming that exposure to an extreme negative consequence will be enough to deter at-risk youth from committing crime. In actuality, there are a number of other factors that could influence a youth’s decision to take part in deviant behavior.
Flaw 3: The program socializes at-risk youth into the sub-culture of crime.
A major hazard of prison visits for adolescents who are already at-risk is the possibility of socializing and desensitizing the youth to the prison culture. By bringing a group of adolescents into a prison and treating them as inmates, the Scared Straight program is having them enact a role that some may internalize as inevitable for themselves. Anthony Schembri, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, hypothesized about “anticipatory socialization” in the Scared Straight Program. According to Schembri, “this process occurs when individuals perceive the certainty of an event and, upon being placed in a similar situation, begin to be socialized toward that event” (12). It is probable that the adolescents in the intervention program are aware of their status as at-risk youth—either through the subculture of violence around them or their past criminal behavior. Once put in the setting of a prison, what is to stop them from accepting the role that has been prescribed to them? (Other than the scare tactic, which has been proven to be ineffective).
The Scared Straight program has had a place in the media since its inception and this has contributed greatly to its socialization in our culture. In January 2011, A&E aired its own television series, “Beyond Scared Straight.” The show documents prison visits and personal accounts from the adolescents who are in the program. The presence of this program on television as entertainment trivializes the importance of the issue. In addition, it desensitizes the public to the issue of criminal behavior in adolescents. This process of desensitization to violence has been examined by psychologists in many experimental study designs. In one investigation, the authors recruited a sample of college students, showed them clips of violent movies and measured for trait aggression, sympathy, and reaction to the violent clips afterwards. The study found that “repeated exposure to media violence reduces the psychological impact of media violence in the short term, therefore desensitizing viewers to media violence” (1). These results could have significant implications for the Scared Straight program and the potential effect of exposing at-risk youth to the prison environment. Violence, illicit drug use and other illegal activities are already pervasive in the media. By familiarizing these adolescents with crime in another context, the program only contributes to the normalizing of this culture.
As an alternative to the Scared Straight program, I would propose a community-based prevention program that utilizes different tactics to deter at-risk youth from criminal behavior. This would be implemented as a weekly after school session in local community centers for adolescents from ages 14-17. Sessions would consist of skills-building workshops for participants. These skills would include socio-cognitive, problem solving and employment based skills. Since the program would not be court mandated, there would have to be incentives to participate. As a community program, we could collaborate with nearby schools to arrange proper incentives. In addition, we would recruit local youth for an advisory committee in order to gain their personal perspectives. The intervention’s major objective would be to empower youth by emphasizing ownership over one’s decisions and essentially creating a movement around personal agency. The program would take advantage of the current age of social networks and media in order to disseminate the messages. Ultimately, the intervention would socialize these at-risk youth into a culture of productivity and opportunity. This is in stark contrast to demoralized and degrading culture of the Scared Straight program.
Defense 1: The intervention empowers youth instead of threatening them.
One of the major flaws within the Scared Straight program was the intimidation tactic that essentially threatened the freedom of its participants. This proposed intervention would be tested before implementation for the potential invocation of psychological reactance. Program managers could run a test version of the program and recruit adolescents to give their feedback on the messages taken from the session. We would want to test for perceived pressure or threats to personal choice. Instead of causing reactance, this program would use the Theory of Psychological Reactance to inform the methods used. For example, there would be no exertion of dominance from those supervising the program. For adolescents, authority figures such as police officers would not be the most effective communicators. Rather, we would mobilize a group of local community members who could serve as leaders in the program. It is important that these community leaders are recognized and respected by the adolescents who are participating in the program. This aspect of familiarity serves to effectively captivate the target audience and bolster the credibility of the message being delivered. For instance, if the program could recruit a successful athlete or business owner who is rooted in the community, the participants could easily identify with them. Their accounts of resilience and ultimate success would be ideal sources of support for the program’s objectives.
By emphasizing the participant’s ownership of their own decisions, the program would empower the adolescents instead of scorning them as the Scared Straight Program did. This perception of one’s ability to execute decisions is described within the psychological concept of Self-efficacy. This refers to “subjective judgments of one’s capabilities to organize and execute course of action to attain designated goals” (6). Unlike the Scared Straight program, this alternative intervention would foster positive perceptions of control, outcome expectations and self-esteem through integrated workshops. The idea is to create a sense of identity and control over one’s identity. Whereas the Scared Straight program already assigns participants an identity and takes away this sense of control.
Defense 2: The intervention utilizes the peer-group to influence behavior.
The alternative approach to intervening with at-risk youth would utilize the theory of diffusion innovation to influence decision making. Adolescence is a period of time when we are easily influenced by what our peers are doing in addition to what is perceived as trendy or “cool” at the time. The social science Theory of Diffusion Innovation explains how a population adopts a product or behavior through diffusion throughout the population (3). In addition, the “key to adoption is that the person must perceive the [behavior] as new or innovative” (3). Our goal as a new intervention program, would be to present the community program as something novel and different from what the community is used to. After assessing the makeup of the networks within the adolescent community, we would initially target those with the most social influence. The Diffusion of Innovation Theory would define these adolescents as the “Innovators.” According to the model, the spread of behavior through a specific population must start with the innovators (3). In the same way that these teenagers are the individuals who initiate fashion trends within their circles, we would aim for them to spark an interest in our program. This method of influencing behavior through the spread of popularity is much more realistic for our target audience than the notion that they will engage in a certain behavior because it is rational. This approach takes into account the social factors that often manipulate adolescents’ behavior patterns.
Defense 3: The program socializes at-risk in a positive manner.
The proposed intervention strategy will result in favorable behavioral outcomes as opposed to the Scared Straight program because it socializes youth into a positive culture. The social context of prison visits is not healthy for an adolescent who is already bombarded with images and stories of criminal behavior by the media. The alternative program recognizes the importance of the social environment and how an adolescent may interact with it. According to the Social Cognitive Theory, a person’s behavior is influenced by the social environment in addition to reinforcements, observations and expectations that accompany the social context (3). Therefore, it is extremely important that this program utilizes the principles of the theory in order to affect its participants. The idea of reinforcement is particularly useful in the new intervention because weekly sessions allow program managers to track and reward positive behavior. For example, for participants who abstain from illegal activity and are able to avoid encounters with law enforcement or the court system, there can be rewards such as organized trips to other cities. This type of positive reinforcement reminds the participants who stay out of trouble that by abstaining from criminal behavior, they are creating other opportunities for themselves.
Another concept of the Social Cognitive Theory that is modeled within the alternative program is observational learning. This concept asserts that “people can witness and observe a behavior conducted by others, and then reproduce those actions” (3). By recruiting role models who have refrained from engaging in criminal behavior, the program is providing a model from which the participating adolescents can observe and imitate. These community members would be relatively young and recognized by the participants so that they could easily connect with them. Unlike the Scared Straight program, which utilizes authority figures such as prison guards and menacing prison inmates, this program relies on positive figures. In a society that is plagued with violence, substance abuse and crime, it is imperative that at-risk youth are exposed to a healthier social context from which they can function. A major goal of this intervention is to change adolescents’ perceived norms of behavior through observation and reinforcement.
Scared Straight was a program that was implemented with honorable intentions—to deter at-risk youth from engaging in dangerous behaviors such as violence, illicit drug use and other illegal activities. However, it has become evident that the program itself is a danger to at-risk adolescents. There is a multitude of literature reviewing the ineffectiveness and risks associated with the intervention strategy. The program’s scare tactics produce undesirable results such as re-offending and deviant behavior. Furthermore, the Scared Straight program socializes its participants into a culture that it wants them to avert. The implications of this program are scary for the future of at-risk youth. I believe that there must be a shift from these law enforcement based programs to community based programs for adolescents. I propose an intervention that does not invoke reactance in its participants. Rather, it empowers them to take ownership over their personal decisions. This comprehensive program could successfully train at-risk youth to engage in productive behavior so that they will have a more appealing alternative to criminal behavior.
1. Avraamides M, Fanti K, Henrich C, Vanman E. Desensitization to Media Violence Over a Short Period of Time. Aggressive Behavior 2009; 35, 179-187.
2. Becker M, Rosenstock I, Strecher V. Social Learning Theory and the Health Belief Model. Health Education Quarterly 1988; 15:2, 175-183.
3. Boston University School of Public Health. Behavioral Change Models: Diffusion of Innovation Theory. Boston, MA: Boston University School of Public Health. http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/SB721-Models/SB721- Models4.html
4. Brehm J. Psychological Reactance: Theory and Applications. Advances in Consumer Research 1989; 72-75.
5. Chein J, Smith A, Steinberg L. Impact of socio-emotional context, brain development, and pubertal maturation on adolescent risk-taking. Hormones & Behavior 2013; 64(2): 323-332.
6. Cleary T, Zimmerman B. Adolescents’ development of personal agency (pp. 47). In: Cleary T, Zimmerman B, ed. Self-efficacy Beliefs of Adolescents. 2006.
7. Dymnicki A, Henry D, Weissberg R. Understanding How Programs Work to Prevent Overt Aggressive Behaviors: A Meta-analysis of Mediators of Elementary School–Based Programs. Journal of School Violence 2011; 10:4, 315-337.
8. Hendrikson H. Beyond Bars. State Legislatures 2012; 38(2): 28-29.
9. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Justice Department Discourages the Use of “Scared Straight” Programs. Washington, DC: OJJDP. https://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/news_at_glance/234084/topstory.html
10. Office of the Surgeon General (US). Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: Office of the Surgeon General (US), 2001.
11. Petrosino A, Turpin C, Buehler J. “Scared Straight” and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 2004.
12. Schembri A. Scared Straight Programs: Jail and Detention Tours. Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 2006.
13. Strategies for Youth. How to Avoid the Failures of Scared Straight. Cambridge, MA: Strategies for Youth. http://strategiesforyouth.org/for-police/how- to/how-to-scared-straight/
14. The New York Times. Movies. New York: The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/43074/Scared-Straight-/overview