Crime and violence is a huge issue nationwide. Various strategies and programs have been implemented to help reduce such from occurring. Nearly half of crimes in the United States are committed by youth 10 to 17 years old. Juvenile crime increases each year at a rate double of adult crime. One way to help deter juvenile crime was the creation of the “Scared Straight Program”. Programs like Scared Straight consist of organized visits to prison facilities by juvenile delinquents or juveniles at risk of becoming delinquent or showing such behavior.

During contact with the juveniles the adult inmates describe their experiences of cruel, harsh, and unpleasant conditions connected with jail or prison incarceration. The expected outcome of these programs is to change the behavior of the juveniles by shocking, scaring, and deterring them from being involved in further delinquent behavior or activities. The programs objective is to deter juveniles from future offending by demonstrating first hand observation and experience of prison life and interaction with the inmates.

Many juvenile delinquency rates have been concluded to come from social problems such as poverty, low education levels, peers, lack of supervision, and guidance. Prison based awareness programs date back to the mid-1960s when the San Quentin Squires Program was established in 1964 at the maximum security prison in San Quentin, California (Klenowski, Bell, Dodson, 2010, Pg. 256). Various similar programs were created in the late 1960s in more than 20 states across the United States. Up until 1978, these programs were known as “Juvenile Awareness Programs”.

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The original Scared Straight Program was on the focus of a television documentary in 1978. Inmates serving life sentences at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey started the program in the 1970’s. It anticipated that by the juveniles experiencing prison life and hearing from the inmates themselves about life behind bars youth and adolescents would be deterred from criminal activity (Petrosino, Turpin-Petrosino, & Buehler, 2001). This program shortly caught the eye of television producers. Seventeen juvenile offenders were followed by camera as they experienced prison life for two hours.

During the duration of the show it was reported that about 8,000 juveniles had visited the prison and that 80% of them were reformed by the experience (Feinstein, 2005, Pg. 41). Despite this involvement of juveniles with inmates, researchers found no difference between those actually participating in the Scared Straight program and those not participating. Since then the authors of “Scared Straight” and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency did a 2002 meta-analysis of relevant research on nine such programs.

It was concluded that not only does the program fail to deter crime, but it actually leads to more offending behavior. Recidivism rates were found to be higher for those exposed to Scared Straight programs than those not in the program. Other studies have also demonstrated that the program is ineffective in preventing delinquent behavior, and that there is evidence that participation in such program may actually contribute toward increased delinquency behavior. Scared Straight Programs also violate the sight and sound separation requirement of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2002.

A guideline provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention states that “the state must assure that no juvenile offender shall enter under public authority for any amount of time, into a secure setting or secure section of an adult correctional facility as a disposition of an offense or as a means of modifying their behavior”. The Office will no longer fund Scared Straight Programs or anything like them due to violating guidelines. The American Juvenile Justice System has made various attempts to avoid actual punishment on youthful offenders by giving them alternatives such as programs to rehabilitate them.

Rather than focusing on humiliating and terrorizing youth to deter them from future crime by having them participate in Scared Straight programs, we should invest instead in a variety of different treatment programs, supportive services, and community based programs that adolescents in the juvenile system need to be successful and prosper to avoid delinquent behavior and activities. I believe the Scared Straight programs are a waste of money. I feel it gives them a better sense of how to do things to prevent from getting caught, and they are actually learning more about criminal activity for their own experience.


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