We Can’t Afford Scared Straight

They say public policy is cyclical, and, in the years that I’ve been evaluating programs for children and youth, it seems to be true that, like a bad penny, some ineffective approaches just keep coming back.  In February, A&E premiered a new show “Beyond Scared Straight” which highlights intervention programs that claim to set juvenile offenders on the right course for a fraction of the cost of other intervention programs by using hardened criminals to scare them.  Unfortunately, with these “tough-minded” programs, we seem to get much less than we pay for.

Evaluations of the Scared Straight-type interventions have repeatedly found that they fail to deter juvenile crime or promote more positive behaviors. In fact, such approaches have been found to have negative impacts. In some settings, youth’s participation in programs incorporating the “scared straight” approach has resulted in significantly higher recidivism rates. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that “Scared Straight” programs, in particular, increased negative crime outcomes by nearly seven percent, and, because of their ineffectiveness, were in essence costing taxpayers and victims approximately $14,667 per program participant.

Clearly, prevention is a good thing, and we want to prevent children and youth from becoming criminals.  Our systems and budgets can’t afford for them to take the wrong fork in the road. But, we must also acknowledge and move forward when the evidence shows that a hoped-for approach fails to deliver the outcomes we need. Evidence indicates that positive approaches that invest in children’s futures, programs such as Communities that Care or Functional Family Therapy, are far more effective for deterring future criminal behavior.

Across disciplines, we see that evaluating interventions can improve our lives. For example, in the public health arena, many believed strongly that Hormone Replacement Therapy would reduce cardiovascular disease and decrease the negative effects of aging.  The concept took strong hold in practice before the evidence was fully in.  Unfortunately, when rigorous studies were completed, it was found that HRT not only did not work but increased women’s risk for cancer and heart disease.  The practice dwindled rapidly thereafter.

Evaluating programs is a critical part of ensuring that we get what we pay for, and our methods for assessing programs improve each year.  It is not responsible to promote an intervention such as “Scared Straight,” when broad consensus exists in the research literature that such programs are not only ineffective but can be harmful.

As the nation continues its slow economic recovery and states grapple with budget shortfalls and look to reorganize departments and reduce costs, it is my continued hope that, wherever possible, what we know about what does and does not work is considered in making investment decisions.  We simply can’t afford ineffective and harmful programs like Scared Straight, and our children deserve better.

Kristin A. Moore, PhD
Senior Scholar, Child Trends

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