Scared Straight programmes
A systematic review was conducted in 2012 of ‘Scared Straight’ and other similar programs for reducing criminal behavior amongst young offenders (Petrosino et al. 2013). It concluded that evidence suggests that young offenders and those at risk of criminal behaviour who have participated in ‘Scared Straight’ programs are more likely to commit future offences than those who didn’t participate, and that “Doing nothing would have been better than exposing juveniles to the program” (Petrosino et al., 2013:15). We summarise this review below.
What is it?
The ‘Scared Straight’ programme originated in the US with the idea that delinquent youngsters could be deterred from a life of crime by showing them the negative consequences of criminal behaviour. The most famous programme took the form of visits to prison for young adults who have committed crime or were considered at risk of offending. During the visits, young people were exposed to some of the harsh realities of the prison system. The programme was first introduced in the United States during the 1970s. In the UK, a similar system was first used at HMP Garth in 1991 (Lloyd, 1995).
Should it work?
Programmes such as ‘Scared Straight’ rely on deterrence by emphasising the negative consequences of committing crime. The programme was designed to deter participants from future offending by providing direct observations of prison life, through visits to prisons and interactions with adult inmates. The documentary Scared Straight! (1978, dir. Arnold Shapiro) shows young people visiting Rahway State Prison in New Jersey and being subjected to graphic accounts of prison violence by a group prisoners serving life sentences. A follow-up documentary: Scared Straight! 20 Years Later (1999, dir. Arnold Shapiro) sought to demonstrate the success of the programme by showing the lives of participants from the original documentary, many of whom, according to the documentary, had not gone on to offend .
Does it work?
A systematic review of ‘Scared Straight’ type programmes was conducted in 2012 (Petrosino et al., 2013), although this was largely update an earlier review (Petrosino et al., 2002). It reviewed nine studies that involved 946 teenagers, in different parts of the USA. The studies mostly involved young men, of a range of ethnicities, aged 15 to 17 years. The review found that these programmes not only fail to reduce offending, but also can actually lead to increases in offending behaviour. The intervention increases the odds of offending by between 1.6 to 1 and 1.7 to 1. The authors concluded that (Petrosino et al., 2013:15) “programs such as ‘Scared Straight’ increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to similar youths. Given these results, we cannot recommend this program as a crime prevention strategy. Agencies that permit such programs, therefore, must rigorously evaluate them, to ensure that they do not cause more harm than good to the very citizens they pledge to protect”.
In the forest plot below, each of the studies of ‘Scared Straight’ programmes (shown along each row) reports an effect size (represented by the white box) that is greater than 1 which shows that the odds of reoffending are greater in the treatment group than in the control group. In fact, the average effect (represented by the diamond) across the 7 studies reviewed is OR 1.68 [1.20, 2.36] which indicates that the odds of reoffending are 68% higher amongst those who were exposed to the ‘Scared Straight’ programmes than those who were not. This is a statistically significant effect because the confidence intervals (represented by the orange bar) do not cross 1.
How strong is the evidence?
The systematic review is based on nine studies all but one of which was a randomised controlled trial.
Is it worth it?
The systematic review did not include an economic analysis. Whilst such programs are very inexpensive (Petrosino et al. 2013), undesirable outcomes associated with them should be considered when answering the question ‘is it worth it?’.
Can it be implemented?
None of the studies reviewed reported difficulties with implementation.
What's missing from the evidence?
The evidence on ‘Scared Straight’ programmes is dated, with the last trial reviewed conducted in 1983. The follow-up periods vary widely from 3 to 24 months and prevalence is the only outcome measured. The mechanism responsible for an increase in criminal behaviour amongst participants of the ‘Scared Straight’ programme is also unclear.