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Scared Straight Back to Juvie

Ok. This one’s gonna be a long one. Mostly complain-y. I’m kinda in the “I reallllllly need to punch someone in the throat” headspace right now. I’ve spent the last hour screaming obscenities at the television. It’s possible that there are some hormonal fluctuations contributing to my language choices, but this … it’s just so … you’ll see.

So, one of my new favorite shows is “Hate Thy Neighbor” which involves a comedian by the name of Jamali Maddix traveling around the world (mostly the United States) talking to hate groups and then performing a little stand up to talk about what he experienced. It’s generally insightful and humorous while also being a bit terrifying and infuriating. Mostly you just get to see how incredibly moronic and insecure hate group members are.

In a recent episode, though, he went a different route and visited a South Carolina jail with a Scared Straight program called Project STORM. In this program, parents or guardians can send kids to jail for 72 hours in an attempt to scare them into good behavior.

I ended up watching this episode tonight because my Pacers game was cancelled. Apparently, it’s so rainy in New Orleans that they had to cancel an indoor basketball game. Which … ok. Sure. So, I guess, that already put me in a foul mood. And then I watched this show about this damn “program.” It was … upsetting.

I’m pissed. I’m emotional. I screamed WTF at the television at least 12 times within the first 20 minutes. At one point, Jamali asks a kid what he’s in there for. His response? “Disrespect and not doing my homework, sir.”


W. T. F.

Lobo went to the other room. He couldn’t take it.

Another scene closes on a child that I swear can’t be more than 10 sitting alone in a cell, wearing an inmate jumpsuit, eating a bologna sandwich while wiping tears out of his eyes.

Good lord. This is where I want to punch someone. A grown ass person. Repeatedly. Until they start making better choices.

The cats have also left…

I mean, I get it. I understand the motivation behind it. I believe that the Sheriff’s Departments running these programs sincerely want to help keep these kids out of jail and prison in the future. I understand that the parents are at their wit’s end trying to figure out how to parent. Shoot. Parenting is hard. Like, hella hard. And I get the belief that showing kids the stark reality of a potential future of incarceration should scare them into behaving. It’s a very seductive idea, especially when A&E is throwing all of these “success stories” at you. These kids just need discipline, right?

Except that 72 hours of screaming and man-handling and threatening and shaming and name-calling are not discipline. A two-hour parenting class is not going to create discipline. And discipline alone is not the solution. It is a part of the solution, don’t get me wrong. Kids absolutely need discipline. Hell, we all need discipline. But what is happening in these programs is not discipline.

Scared Straight doesn’t work. I know this. Beyond Scared Straight does not work. I know this, too.

I know this because I read the research. It’s a topic that is important to me, so I want to know the research behind any program directed at adolescents, particularly those involved in the juvenile justice system. And the research behind this one says that it doesn’t work. And not only does it not work, it actually makes things worse. Like, kids that go through this program often end up committing more crime. Like, real crimes. Not just, say, refusing to do their homework.

For those that like to know the research behind someone’s opinion, check out these bullet points. Or, if you just blindly trust my judgement, you can skip them. Because I’m right here.

  • A study of nine different Scared Straight programs demonstrated that participation increased crime by up to 28% (Petrosino, Buehler, & Turpin-Petrosino, 2013).
  • A study by the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies found higher rates of reoffending when kids participated in a Scared Straight program (Lipsey, 1992).
  • The Justice Department has identified Scared Straight as a program that doesn’t work (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [OJJDP], 2011).

I could keep going, but APA reference and citation formatting is obnoxious. So, just go ahead and visit any crime prevention or criminal or juvenile justice programming website and see for yourself. National Institute of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, National Criminal Justice Reference Service, Office of Justice Programs. The list goes on. They all say the same thing. It doesn’t work. Do the research. It’s good for your critical thinking skills.

Of course, A&E loved to throw up those “success stories” at the end. “Mikey stopped smoking weed and now does the dishes.” “Gina no longer has sex with strange men and stopped hitting her mom.”

That sounds impressive, right? Why aren’t we sending EVERY kid through this program???

Because those little “success stories” aren’t the full stories.

First, understand what these programs do.

They take children with limited or even no history of contact with law enforcement or the juvenile justice system and incarcerate them with adult offenders. Like, we skip the steps of initial contact with law enforcement and the juvenile justice system and go straight for the adult criminal justice system. And that is supposed to turn them into respectful, model children?

And I use the term children intentionally to highlight the fact that these are not grown human beings. Their brains are not yet fully developed. You know which part of the human brain develops last? The frontal lobe. You know what the frontal lobe does? It controls our expression of emotion, judgement, decision making, and problem solving. You know, all of those things that might keep us from doing stupid, impulsive things, irrational things. So, maybe just snatching a kid up by the collar and screaming insults in their face until they break down in tears isn’t the most effective approach to motivating a change in their behavior.

And then they throw in a two-hour parenting class. Because they recognize that the problem is not just with the child, so kudos to them for understanding that. But what in the actual hell do they really think is going to come from a two-hour parenting class?

Cut to the end of the episode and two boys are left waiting for their moms to show up after everyone else has gone home. Mom missed the end of program part where the kids apologize to their parents in front of everyone, get hugs, and go home to live happily ever after. They get to watch the other kids leave with their families and they get to sit with the Sheriff’s Deputies until moms finally arrive. You can see it so clearly on these kids’ faces. The hurt and disappointment, but also the resigned acceptance that they really are in this on their own.

And when the last mom finally shows up, Jamali asks her what she thinks needs to change besides her son’s behavior. Her response? Really nothing else. Just his attitude. Jamali gives her another chance. You don’t think he was upset that you were late coming to get him? No. He knew I was coming. So, what else do you think needs to change besides just his behavior? That’s really it. Just his attitude.

So, great work on that parenting class, right?

These types of scared straight programs don’t work.

You know what DOES work?

Programs that support children’s growth and development. Providing support systems for poor families and activities for kids. Programs that help kids develop skills like persevering, delaying gratification, critical thinking, and cooperation. Programs that help children learn self-respect and self-discipline.

Programs like, and you had to know I was coming back to this, Girls on the Run. Or a similar program for boys that I recently learned about called Let Me Run.

Because investing in our children is so much easier (and cheaper) than trying to fix a broken adult.

And now that I’ve got my frustrations out there in the interwebverse, I’m going to go try to convince my dog that I’m safe to be around again.

References (because, again, research)

Lipsey, M. W. (1992). Juvenile delinquency treatment: A meta-analytic inquiry into the variability of effects. In: Cook, T.C., Cooper, H., Cordray, D.S., Hartmann, H., Hedges, L.V., Light, R.L., Louis, T.A., & Mosteller, F.M., editor(s). Meta-Analysis for Explanation. New York: Russell Sage, 1992:83-127.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (2011). Justice Department discourages use of “Scared Straight” programs. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/news_at_glance/234084/topstory.html.

Petrosino, A., Bueler, J., & Turpin-Petrosino, C. (2013). “Scared straight’ and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency. Campbell Collaboration. Retrieved from https://www.campbellcollaboration.org/library/juvenile-delinquency-scared-straight-etc-programmes.html.

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Just reading and writing and running and looking for my happy place.


  1. David says:

    Interesting read. I never really like them shows. Always though it was way to extreme 😬

    1. Absolutely too extreme. Yet A&E’s Scared Straight was nominated for an Emmy. So, viewers were clearly entertained by it and probably believed the program was doing good. So frustrating.

  2. Thank you for the clarification. I think that if more people knew this information and the results of the studies, it might certainly change the popularity of the show. It sounds heartwrenching and (my professional (?) opinion of JUST WRONG. Assaulting the self esteem of an already assaulted self esteem seems a recipe for disaster. How about character education beginning in elementary school? How about conflict resolution and positive self image classes beginning in elementary school? I cannot imagine the hell that some of these children go through at home. There is much need for public education, maybe you could find a way to educate the elementary school teachers on up and help them set up parenting classes. Also Childrens services through the local DSS offices. Sometimes I look at my life, my children’s lives and COUNT MY BLESSINGS. Great article Sunshine. Thank you and Best Wishes!!

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