Scared Straight and Other Juvenile Awareness Programs
Scared Straight and other programs involve organized visits to prison by juvenile delinquents or kids at-risk for criminal behavior. The goal of such programs is that through first-hand observation of prison life and interaction -sometimes realistically brutal -with adult inmates, these juveniles will be deterred from future lawbreaking behavior. Despite research studies and reviews of varying quality questioning their effectiveness, they remain in use and have been tried in at least six
... (USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Norway). A 1999 film entitled "Scared Straight! 20 Years Later" aired in the USA and offered evidence of a strong, long-term effect of a New Jersey Scared Straight program on subsequent offending (Aims Multimedia 1999). Objectives To assess the effects of programs comprising organized visits to prisons of 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. Search strategy Extensive searching using multiple methods was conducted. Earlier work by the first author in identifying randomized field trials 1945-1993 relevant to criminology formed an initial pool of studies. This was updated with specific searches of 14 electronic data bases using keywords particular to the intervention (e.g. "Scared Straight"), broad searches of the Campbell Collaboration Social, Psychological, Educational & Criminological Trials Register and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register, citation chasing, and correspondence with investigators. Selection criteria Studies that tested the effects of any program involving the organized visits of juvenile delinquents or children at-risk for delinquency to penal institutions were included. Studies that included overlapping samples of juvenile and young adults (e.g. ages 14-20) were included. We only considered studies that randomly or quasi-randomly (i.e. alternation) assigned participants to conditions. Each study had to have a no-treatment control condition. The study had to report at least one outcome measure of "post-visit" criminal behavior. Data collection & analysis We conducted three main analyses of prevalence rates using official data, as information from other sources (self-report) or indexes (means) was either sporadically reported or missing critical information (standard deviations). Three analytic strategies were adopted. We examined (1) first-effects, (2) mean effects; and (3) best effects. We computed Odds Ratios (OR) for prevalence data, and assumed both fixed and random effects models in our analyses. We also computed the full array of Cohen's effect size (d) for all available outcome statistics. Main results All three analytic strategies using OR show intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing. This is true whether we examined the first effect reported, the average effect (across all prevalence measures) in each study, or the strongest effect for the program. The full array of outcome measures (converted to d) show intervention had either no impact or harmful effects on measures of prevalence, incidence, severity and latency. Reviewers' conclusions We conclude that programs like Scared Straight and other juvenile awareness programs likely have a harmful effect and increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to the same youths. Given these results, agencies that permit such programs must rigorously evaluate them not only to ensure that they are doing what they purport to do (prevent crime)but at the very least they do not cause more harm than good.