What Happened to “Do No Harm”? A Comment on Scare Tactic Interventions

February 2, 2011

By Shawn Marsh, Ph.D.

Prevention and intervention researchers have learned much about programs for youth that do not work or that are actually harmful. Thanks to this growing body of knowledge and advances in our understanding of brain development, the juvenile justice system is well-equipped to ensure that practices with youthful offenders adhere to the principle of “do no harm.” Further, the juvenile justice system is well-positioned to identify and implement promising practices with youthful offenders – and ensure interventions support improved outcomes as intended through ongoing research and evaluation.

In light of this capacity to avoid harm and encourage effective practice in juvenile justice, it is particularly disturbing to see the media highlight – and sometimes encourage – intervention programs that we know do not work and that can worsen outcomes for youth. Specifically, the recent launch of the A&E series “Beyond Scared Straight” spotlights a prison-based intervention with at-risk youth that has no credible evidence of effectiveness. Social science research instead suggests that Scared Straight!and similar programs can harm youth and are associated with increased risk for continued delinquent/criminal behaviors. Unfortunately, the producers of “Beyond Scared Straight” have elected to misrepresent the effectiveness of the intervention to the public by claiming it is “an effective juvenile prevention/intervention program.” Even a casual review of the research literature reveals why proponents of scared tactic programs are forced to defend claims of effectiveness by resorting to anecdote or faulty reasoning (e.g., “we just know it works” or “it would work on me if I were a child” or “judges wouldn’t send kids to these program if they didn’t work”). Most people with even a rudimentary understanding of science would agree that anecdote and poor logic are no way to determine high stakes courses of actions that involve human beings in need.

A&E’s decision to mislead viewers about an archaic and damaging intervention does nothing to advance the field of juvenile justice and does nothing to help youth and families in crisis. Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the exploitation and abuse of youth participating in these programs and shows. For example, scenes in “Beyond Scared Straight” often depict adult inmates “getting in the face” of vulnerable youth. During these confrontations, screaming, threats of violence, sexual innuendo, and manipulation are common. While some youth cry, many seem frozen (not surprising since fighting or running away simply are not options). Further, details are often made public about what brought the youth to the program and the struggles of their families. Traumatizing and humiliating children and families is never acceptable; doing so for entertainment is unconscionable. Re-traumatizing youth with a high likelihood of trauma histories is simply beyond comprehension.

Why do scare tactic programs still operate, then? Good question… and the answer likely is found in some of the common enemies of science: instinct, “common sense,” anger, fear, and desperation.

These types of interventions as portrayed have no cogent theoretical basis, are neither developmentally appropriate nor trauma-informed by any stretch of the imagination, and enjoy no known empirical support. Lack of theory or evidence are massive red flags in the world of research when assessing the merits of an intervention – and should alarm anyone genuinely interested in bettering outcomes for children and families. As noted previously, evidence suggests scare tactic programs are ineffective, and can actually worsen the very conduct they seek to correct. If the juvenile justice field is committed to “do no harm,” it is critical we continue to insist (1) scare tactic programs be eliminated, (2) funds be allocated to support interventions shown to be effective, and (3) the public receive factual information about effective and humane practices with at-risk youth.

Do you want to learn more about promising practices as well as what does not work in juvenile justice programming? Join us at the National Conference on Juvenile and Family Law to be held in Reno, Nevada, March 27-30, 2011. Some of our outstanding sessions will include presentations by Dr. Kimberly Larson, Dr. Thomas Grisso, and Dr. Rebecca Nathanson on juvenile competency to stand trial and competency restoration. Also, please visit www.ncjfcj.org for more information on calls for A&E to provide a meaningful opportunity to present the facts on Scared Straight! and similar programs, so the public can be informed about evidence-based practices and programs for youthful offenders.


Do No Harm Part II: A Note on Evidence and "Scared Straight"

Several years ago, Dr. Patricia Campie (Director, National Center for Juvenile Justice) and I wrote a short article outlining ten fundamentals of good social science that we believed could guide improved communication and understanding between researchers and juvenile justice professionals [see Marsh, S. C., & Campie, P. E. (Spring 2009). Words and concepts matter: Ten commandments of social science research. Rapport (National Juvenile Court Services Association), 13(2), 8-10.] Given the ongoing controversy around the A&E show “Beyond Scared Straight” (e.g., see What Happened to “Do No Harm”? A Comment on Scare Tactic Interventions), revisiting one particular section of our article seems in order. Specifically, the third “commandment” from the article reads:

Thou shalt not confuse anecdote with evidence. Social scientists heed the old saying, ‘The plural of anecdote is not evidence.’ Personal experiences and examples of apparently successful practices are valuable, but they do not meet the rigorous standards of scientific evidence. Human beings are susceptible to biases whereby they gather, retain, and promote information that is consistent with their experiences and worldview. Social scientists seek to limit these tendencies by using a strong theoretical lens, mapping out research methods a priori, and employing multiple perspectives on the phenomenon under investigation.”

Unfortunately, the defenders of scare tactic programs – including the producers of “Beyond Scared Straight” – appear to have missed this fundamental lesson about what constitutes science and evidence. For example, it is not uncommon to see supporters of the program and show resort to anecdote and bad reasoning along the lines of… “I have seen some followup [sic] stories on some of those kids after they return home from their prison visit and the ones I have seen seem to have changed their attitudes” and “My viewpoint is that these shows cause no harm and if they keep one teenager out of prison they are worthwhile” (excerpts from Nostalgia and Now: Blog About Past And Present).



News Category: