Is the Scared Straight Program Effective?


During the last decades, public attention and research have been focusedon the problem what programs can be effective in adolescent substance abuse treatment. The government and publicity try to help kids get caught in the juvenile system. As a result, foundations and lawmakers have been developing different helpful programs in order to understand which of them may work. The Scared Straight Program is one of such programs. Some of lawmakers consider it to be helpful for  improvement of  the life of adolescent prisoners, while others are sure that it is rather  harmful than helpful. The developers of Scared Straight envisioned a program so forceful, compelling and frightening that the young offenders would be deterred from subsequent offending. This paper intends to overview what kind of program  Scared Straight is, and what  the consequences of its implementation are.

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What Is the Scared Straight Program?

Scared Straight was a program that began in New Jersey in 1978 and became quite popular. Many jurisdictions around the United States and in other nations implemented Scared Straight programs with the goal of deterring petty juvenile offenders from a life of crime. There are several documentaries based on the original Scared Straight program at Rahway State Prison, which is now called East Jersey State Prison (Hoffman, 2011). A group of inmates in prison for life formed a group called the Lifer’s Group. This group of men decided that one way for them to give something back to society was to develop a delinquency prevention program, one that would attempt to make budding delinquents aware of the possible consequences of their behavior and of the dangers and difficulties facing youngsters in the prison (Klenowski, 2010). In essence, the goal  for the inmates was to confront these youth in group settings and literally to scare them straight.

The Scared Straight program takes “at-risk” adolescents who have had contact with the juvenile justice system and sends them on a “field trip” to a maximum security prison to meet with a group of inmates doing 25 years to life for violent crimes. During their “field trip” the adolescents are processed into the prison by gruff guards, walk through the cell blocks, where they are taunted by inmates behind bars, and spend time with a group of “lifers”. The lifers tell them about life on the inside: they swear, they yell, and intimidate.

The developers of Scared Straight envisioned a program so forceful, compelling and frightening that the young offenders would be deterred from subsequent offending. Several documentaries about the program claim that it was an unqualified success (Hoffman, 2011). Many scholars have argued that scientific evidence does not support the claim that Scared Straight program is an effective program. In an exhaustive review of research addressing these programs, it was discovered that not only did it appear Scared Straight had not deterred subsequent involvement in delinquency and crime. The result from several studies indicated that groups exposed to the “lifers” have higher offending rates and were involved in more severe offenses after the program than groups of young people that had not gone through the program. These researchers concluded that even given noble intentions  crime prevention programs may have unintended consequences and may do more harm than good.

Historical Review

Initial reports of the impact of Scared Straight were positive. A film was produced concerning the history and goals of this program, showing some of the confrontation sessions between inmates and juveniles. This film received numerous film awards and further served to validate the success of the project. In the late 1970s, James Finckenauer received a grant to study the impact of Scared Straight by examining the post confrontation behavior of 35 juveniles, who were used as a control group. The result of Finckenauer’s study indicated that the program did not result in a reduction of delinquency, but  was rather associated with an increase in delinquency among the Scared Straight youth. For example, among the 46 Scared Straight youth, 41.3 percent had at least one recorded act of delinquency six months after the confrontation experience. The comparable rate of delinquency for the controls was 11.4 percent.

Although research was beginning to cast doubt on the effectiveness of Scared Straight programs, their popularity and presumed successes resulted in the establishment of similar programs in other states. One such program in Virginia was called the Insiders Program, and it lasted from 1978 to 1984. Evaluations of the Insiders Program concluded that the court appearance rates for the experimental group (those exposed to Scared Straight tactics) were about the same as those for a group of controls. Longer periods of evaluation, from 9 to 12 months, suggested that the experimental youth were faring better than the controls, but some have questioned the validity of these longer follow-up estimates of recidivism (Shoemaker, 2009). Despite the popularity of Scared Straight programs, some began to express concerns about possible injuries to youth during confrontations early on.

Reports of inmates manhandling or touching youth were surfacing, and questions about the ethics of the film and the emotional impact of the confrontations on the youth and their families were being raised. Many states, however, continue to develop these programs, sometimes with the confrontation model and sometimes without (Shoemaker, 2009).  In California, for example, officials introduced the “Squired” program, which de-emphasized the confrontation method in favor of less threatening, but still informative sessions. This program was evaluated and found to be unsuccessful in reducing delinquency, compared with control groups.

In the 1990s, other countries, such as Norway began to experiment with the Scared Straight model, but these, too, have not demonstrated any measurable impact on reducing delinquency. Although many of the youth who experienced the program in Norway said their experiences were positive, interviews with these young people indicated they were not measurably affected by the experience. In addition, although the majority  of the young delinquents  gave positive feedback about the way they were treated by the inmates, there were reports of physical confrontations between the inmates and the youth.

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Surveys of Scared Straight Programs

Continued surveys of Scared Straight programs have consistently concluded that they do not deter delinquency. In fact, the results sometimes show that such programs are associated with an increase in delinquency. The authors of one survey of Scared Straight programs offer the following conclusion that Scared Straight programs are not effective as a crime prevention strategy. Furthermore, they provide empirical evidence that these programs increase the odds that children exposed to them will commit another delinquent offense” (Klenowski, 2010). Despite these negative conclusions concerning Scared Straight programs, they remain popular in the public eye and among corrections officials across the country. In part, this popularity is associated with the appeal of  getting tough with juvenile offenders. Scared Straight programs continue to develop along with boot camps and other get-tough programs.

The research asserts that Scared Straight programs remain popular and stay in use by six nations. Many of lawmakers had an expectation that Scared Straight programs would reduce crime. Unfortunately, not all expectations bring desired results. Although it was estimated that Scared Straight programs worked, reducing crime by up to 50 per cent (Petrosino, 2003),  a thorough  investigation produced  findings showing that  Scared Straight actually increased crime. The reason for that was, perhaps, the young people discovered that jail was not as bad as they had thought. As a result, the survey asserts,  the program should be recognized as  harming every person who it was intended to help.

Who Are Involved in the Scared Straight Program?

The public inevitably play an important role in the evaluation of policy as they are ultimately responsible for electing those they believe will both focus on the policy areas that best match their own priorities and  deliver the best outcomes in those policy areas. Therefore, individual members of the public and the organizations in which they participate may play an important role in the evaluation of the policy between elections through mechanisms as diverse as participation in formal consultation processes. Formal public participation in policy making is supposed to facilitate communication among citizens, interest groups, stakeholders, businesses, and government regarding a specific decision of the problem (Siegel & Worrall, 2011). Thus, providing opportunities for public participation in the decision-making process, the decision to create such opportunities can have a significant impact on the nature of the question being considered.

There are, however, risks and costs associated with engaging community stakeholders in the evaluation process, as well as risks and costs associated with failing to do so. Of course, it is not just interest groups that may be considered stakeholders in the design and conduct of the evaluation. It may, for example, be necessary to talk to other government departments, other levels of government, and even international agencies. Alternatively, it may be useful to seek out former staff members, academics, or other individuals, who may possess insights or information that would not otherwise be available to the evaluators.

On a pragmatic note, those conducting reviews often advertise the existence and terms of references of their review and call for  making submissions. While published invitations play a role in eliciting input from some members of the community, this process is also likely to attract the highest level of engagement from those with the most to gain or lose. Finally, the issue of who is to be involved in the evaluation covers both  groups to be consulted as well as those responsible for the conduct of the evaluation itself. That is, an important decision is whether or not the evaluation has to be conducted  ‘in house’ or by external consultants. This   decision  will be influenced by the audience of  the report (e.g. Cabinet of the general public), the focus of the report (process or impact) and the resources available (Shoemaker, 2009).

The Reasons of Unintended Results of the Program

An unintended result of the Scared Straight program was that the juveniles who participated in the program actually did worse than a comparison group not exposed to the program. Attempts to identify the factors that cause harmful side effects will help modify the program accordingly, which is important. The goal of the Scared Straight program was to scare the delinquent youth into a law-abiding life. Adolescents were brought to a prison and experienced criminals verbally threatening them and graphically suggesting what their fate will be should they continue their delinquent behavior. Surely, such a program could have been effective, since it would bring delinquents face-to-face with the future consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, research on the Scared Straight program indicates that “controls” (i.e. delinquents, who did not go through this program) committed fewer delinquencies than those who participated in the program. In addition, the offenses the controls committed were less serious than offenses committed by delinquents who had been treated in this program (Klenowski, 2010).

Unintended consequences sometimes occur despite people’s best intentions. Finally, interventions that are effective for one client may not work as well with others. Attempting to identify the factors that cause harmful side effects and modify the program accordingly is important. The completion of the evaluation phase leads to one of two conclusions. Either the client system has achieved the goals previously identified, or goals have not been reached. If the goals have not been attained, the worker needs to explore with the client whether or not continued intervention will be helpful. If both parties decide that continued work is needed, this decision may lead to a new process of planned change. If goals have been reached or there may be other reasons for concluding the intervention, the termination phase of the helping process will be achieved (Siegel & Worrall, 2011).

Unintended and often undesirable effects are rarely noted in criminology but form an important element of the Consort Statement. The Statement advocates that authors examining the results of trial information need to be aware that an intervention can harm participants along with  providing benefits. An adverse event in criminological research may focus on an increase in recidivism rate following the delivery of an intervention. Examples of such adverse events can be taken  from the criminological literature, one of the most famous  being the Scared Straight evaluation.

Scared Straight Movement

A major turning point occurred in January 1978, when an article touting the program appeared in Reader’s Digest, which sells 30 million copies in twelve languages. The article depicted the dramatic effect of a prison visit of nine teenage boys, who had been in trouble with the law and were given an opportunity to see what lay in store for them unless they  changed their ways. At the end of the visit, all  youths were stunned and the youngest threw his arms around the juvenile officer who had brought them to the prison and exclaimed, “Do not ever let them take me back there!” (Petrosino, 2003).

Filmmaker Arnold Shapiro read the Reader’s Digest story and decided to make a documentary, Scared Straight, about the Rahway program. This sensationally popular documentary helped convince the public that delinquent youth could be reformed, if only they realized what prison was like. In this documentary, 17 New Jersey teenagers spent three hours in Rahway, while the “lifers’ gave them a crude, in-face account of prison life, jeering and cursing at them and describing the graphic details of anal rape. The film showed the youths visibly transformed from cocky, tough-talking delinquents to frightened and penitent schoolboys. Despite its obscene language, the film was aired uncensored on national television in 1979 to tremendous public and critical acclaim. The film won an Oscar and eight Emmys for its director. In the 1999 sequel Scared Straight 20 Years Later, Shapiro interviewed those boys as adults and reported that 15 out of the 17 juvenile delinquents went on to become “productive members of society.” The sequel concluded with testimony from two social workers who claimed that 80 percent of the teens they work with are inspired to turn their lives around by a Scared Straight approach.

Many experts wonder if it could simply be a matter of scaring these boys into changing their lives. If so, the Scared Straight approach would be the most efficient and cost-effective form of prevention ever devised. Scared Straight programs were implemented in at least 30 jurisdictions across the United States and Australia, Canada, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Studies evaluating the effect of the Scared Straight approach on subsequent criminal offending were conducted in California, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia (Petrosino, 2003).

Scared Straight Ideas

What did these studies find? A group of scholars affiliated with Harvard University and Bridgewater State College identified nine especially rigorous studies of the Scared Straight approach. In each study a group of youths was randomly selected to visit a correctional institution, or to serve as a comparison subjects in a non-treatment control group. A total of 946 youths participated in these studies. The results demonstrate the discrepancy between observer perception and objective outcomes. The young participants, their parents and their teachers all expressed positive reactions to the program, but the objective evidence was that the programs did not reduce subsequent criminal behavior (Shoemaker, 2009). In each study,  the differences between the prevention group and the control group were either statistically insignificant, or, on the contrary, the youth who participated in the Scared Straight program engaged in  criminal offenses more  than those in the control group.  As the researchers concluded, “… on average these programs result in an increase in criminality in the experimental group, when compared to a no-treatment control. According to these experiments, doing nothing would have been better than exposing the juveniles to the program” (Petrosino, 2003).

In fact, study findings were so consistently negative that by 1993 researchers had ceased studying Scared Straight programs. As far as scholars are concerned, the question has been answered and the issue is dead. Nevertheless, the Scared Straight idea continues to have popular appeal. For example, a well-meaning father in Pittsburgh was so upset that his 13-year old son had got in trouble at school that he decided to implement his own Scared Straight approach. He dropped the boy off at a local juvenile detention center, where he knew some of the guards. The guards took their mission seriously and started by ordering the boy to submit to a strip search. When the boy refused, four guards stripped him by force and he was given a detention center uniform and made to scrub a toilet. In  an hour the boy was released and when he told his mother what had happened, the incident came to the attention of the authorities. The guards were suspended from their jobs and charged with false imprisonment and assault. The boy’s father was charged with conspiracy.


Many scholars have argued that scientific evidence does not support the claim that Scared Straight program is an effective program. In an exhaustive review of research addressing these programs, it was discovered that not only did  Scared Straight  not deter subsequent involvement in delinquency and crime but increased the delinquency rates. The research asserts that initially the young participants, their parents, and  teachers all expressed positive reactions to the program. Still,  the objective evidence was that the programs did not reduce subsequent criminal behavior (Shoemaker, 2009). In fact, study findings were so consistently negative that by 1993 researchers had ceased studying Scared Straight programs. As far as scholars are concerned, the question has been answered. Nevertheless, the Scared Straight idea continues to have popular appeal  today. It is worth noting that the scared Straight program was effective to some extent. It should be taken into consideration that the effectiveness depended on the culture, race, and behavior of delinquents. 

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