“Controlled studies show that boot camp and “Scared Straight” interventions are ineffective, and even potentially harmful, for delinquents.” — Lilienfeld et al, 2010, p.225

‘Scared Straight’ is a program designed to deter juvenile participants from future criminal offenses. Participants visit inmates, observe first-hand prison life and have interaction with adult inmates. These programs are popular in many areas of the world.

The basic premise of these programs are that juveniles who see what prison is like will be deterred from future violations of the law — in other words, “scared straight.” “Scared Straight” emphasizes severity of punishment, but neglects two other key components of deterrence theory — certainty and swiftness (Mears, 2007).

Petrosino and colleagues (2002) investigated “the effects of programmes comprising organised visits to prisons by juvenile delinquents (officially adjudicated or convicted by a juvenile court) or pre-delinquents (children in trouble but not officially adjudicated as delinquents), aimed at deterring them from criminal activity.”

The selection criteria for the research they reviewed were:

  • Studies that assessed effects of any program involving organized visits of juvenile or children at- risk for criminality to penal institutions
  • Overlapping sample of juvenile and young adults (ages: 14-20) were included
  • Only studies that randomly or quasi-randomly assigned participants to conditions were included
  • Each study investigated had to include a no-treatment control condition with at least one outcome measure of “post visit” criminal behavior

Nine trials met the criteria for the study. The researchers’ results indicated “the [Scared Straight] intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing. The program effect, whether assuming a fixed or random effects model, was nearly identical and negative in direction, regardless of the meta-analytic strategy.” In other words, Scared Straight not only doesn’t work, it may actually be more harmful than doing nothing.

Another meta-analysis showed “Scared Straight” interventions could possibly worsen conduct-disorder symptoms (Lilinefeld, 2005). A meta-analysis conducted by Aos and colleagues (2001) showed that “Scared Straight” and similar programs produced substantial increases in recidivism (chronic relapse into crime).

Evidence indicates that “Scared Straight” and similar programs are simply not effective in deterring criminal activity. In fact, these types of programs may be harmful and increase delinquency relative to no intervention at all with the same youths.

According to Dr. DeMichelle, Senior Research Associate American Parole and Probation Association, “Scared Straight” programs rely on a deterrence-based strategy that fails to consider the driving mechanisms of deterrence. These mechanisms include: certainty of receiving a punishment or negative stimuli following a behavior, and swiftness of the punishment or negative stimuli (referring to temporal proximity of punishment to the unwanted behavior).

In other words, punishment or negative stimuli must be presented shortly after the unwanted behavior.

[“Scared Straight”], I believe, was conjured up and implemented by folks due to its intuitive appeal of doing something harsh or painful to kids so they won’t commit crimes in the future. But, the reality is that the approach is devoid of scientific investigation of human behavior”, says Dr. DeMichelle (Hale, 2010).

In my opinion, the media has capitalized on the intuitive appeal of this type of strategy. TV talk shows often promote the efficacy, in a sensational manner, of “Scared Straight” and its proxies.

Criminal policy is often based on intuition, rather than research evidence. In an effort to strengthen criminal policy it is important that relationships are formed among policy makers and researchers. Educational facilities, departments of criminology and criminal justice should place more emphasis on teaching evaluation research. These types of efforts may begin to institutionalize evidence based crime policies and contribute to policy-making efforts (Mears, 2007; Marion & Oliver, 2006).