The Many Things Wrong with A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight” Program

September 22, 2011

[Note: This entry was written by Irene Sullivan for the Reclaiming Futures blog]

The “Beyond ‘Scared Straight’” message, “In prison for a day to stay out for life,” certainly appeals to a television audience. The hit series from Disney’s A&E Network became the most-watched original series launch in the network’s history with an audience of 3.7 million people. The show is a spinoff of the multiple award-winning documentary films also produced by Arnold Shapiro.

But do “scared straight” programs really work to reduce juvenile crime?

“No,” claimed Professor James Finckenauer, Ph.D., from Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, in his address to the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) in New York City in July. Finckenauer, author of Scared Straight! and the Panacea Phenomenon Revisited, cogently explained why those programs don’t work by examining the concept of “deterrence” as applied to teenage thinking and behavior.

I confess I was one of the judges who accepted the evidence that “scared straight” programs didn’t work, but I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I thought, I certainly would have been “scared straight” after experiencing a day in prison, including being yelled at by brutal inmates, clanging bars, menacing guards, etc. Why wouldn’t it work on at-risk teens? What was wrong with the headline, “They think they’re fighters. Will it change when they can’t fight back?”


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