Joe Vignati: “Beyond Scared Straight” is Beyond Common Sense


On January 13th, A&E will premiere its new series Beyond Scared Straight touting the benefits of Scared Straight programming to an unsuspecting U.S. audience.

Unfortunately, there’s little new to be presented, either in effective programming for youth or responsible broadcast standards for prime time television.

The original Scared Straight!, produced in 1978, won an Academy Award (Best Documentary) for its Director, Arnold Shapiro.  This was followed by Scared Straight! Another Story (1980), and Scared Straight! 10 Years Later (1987), and, for good measure, Scared Straight! 20 Years Later (1999).

It appears that Mr. Shapiro is nothing, if consistent, in his messaging (he was also producer of the amazingly popular television shows Rescue 911 and Big Brother).

Unfortunately for the viewing public, his message is amazingly wrong.

The premise behind scared straight programming is classic deterrence theory.  Take at-risk youth, put them in an adult prison, and expose them to adult prisoners so they get a taste of what their life could be like if they don’t change. The idea is that by inflicting kids with enough pain/discomfort now (through shock immersion in prison culture) this will discourage offending behavior in the future.

The new show and A&E’s website claim: "Over the years, both the prison program and the film have turned countless kids away from drugs, violence and crime, and kept them out of prison.”

When information is lacking, fear tends to proliferate.  This programming preys on parents and communities sometimes desperate to find a way to make an impact on a troubled youth.

This type of get- tough message has great appeal: the spare the rod, spoil the child approach has deep roots in our culture and thrives on community fear and misinformation.

At the time that the original Scared Straight! first aired, we did not have the research to show what works in juvenile justice prevention and intervention. Fortunately, in the past 32 years since the original Scared Straight!  first aired, research has caught up with reality television and is able to provide us with the truth about some of Scared Straight’s claims.

In the short-term, Scared Straight programs succeed in getting a kid’s attention.  It seems rational, and surveys taken after the prison experience almost universally indicate that youth have had a strong reaction and are “going to clean up my act”.

But the research is clear, once the trauma of Scared Straight has worn off, meta-analysis shows that this intervention actually INCREASES the odds of offending compared to a no-treatment control group.

This research has been well-documented by Mark Lipsey, the Campbell Collaboration, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy and others.

Their research separates juvenile justice system interventions into two broad categories:

  • Control Approaches - Scared Straight falls in this category.
  • Therapeutic Approaches -  Skill Building, Counseling, Multiple Service Delivery fall in this category.

Multiple studies clearly show that Therapeutic approaches are effective, Control approaches are not effective.

It is important to also note that the US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention actively discourages the use of Scared Straight programming. Here’s why:

  • Scared Straight programming is not only ineffective, it may actually increase the participant’s risk of offending.
  • Research shows it does not work as intended and may have a negative impact

It may not make for good television but as good stewards of public funds it is our obligation to avoid the lazy sensationalism of easy, reality show “fixes” and ground our response to crime prevention in solid, research-based interventions that have proven their effectiveness.

Your tax dollars are being used to support a program that makes it more likely that juveniles will break the law. Isn’t it time that we direct our scarce resources towards programming that has been shown to reduce crime?


Joe Vignati has been working in the juvenile justice field for more than 23 years.  He heads Justice Programs at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in Georgia.  In 2010, Mr. Vignati was elected the National Juvenile Justice Specialist by his peers in the 56 states and territories of the U.S. to represent their interests and he currently serves on the Executive Board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in that capacity.


Producer Arnold Shapiro admits he has never looked at any studies evaluating the effectiveness of his Scared Straight shows.  Read what else he tells

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Joe Vignati

Joe Vignati is currently an administrator for the Justice Division at the Geogia Governor’s Office for Children and Families. Vignati has worked as a deputy director for the Children and Youth Coordinating Council and as expeditor for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

11 thoughts on “Joe Vignati: “Beyond Scared Straight” is Beyond Common Sense”

  1. Carl, I went through a Scared Straight program while I was living in Virginia Beach and I was sent there because of an F on my report card.X| We were driven to the prison and a sharp dressed 72 year old woman (I guess she was the warden) started shooting her mouth like a rough and tough sailor and I accidently shook my head No as she screamed at me to shut my face. From the corner of my eye, I saw a C.O. strike me on top of my head with a baton and he was IN MY FACE telling me to STFU or it will get real worse. It did. I had to deal with an inmate named Martitez aka Big F—er and he screamed at the top of his lungs by saying “You’re not a stupid ass, hmm?!” “You don’t have to be told shut up?!” He actually grabbed my arm and slapped me seven times and yelled “SAY IT! I will respect authority” I was crying and they told me to be quiet. I didn’t smart off to my parents as I was in and out foster care from 3 to 14 plus I have dyslexia and ADD and it was because of these afflictions that I couldn’t learn. I have been in jail a few times but for public intoxication and possession of drugs (usually for minute amounts) It has changed me alright but I don’t trust many people because of what I went through

  2. While you cite studies which you claim support your thesis you never tell the reader what these studies base their conclusions upon. How do they know such programs do not work? Was this based upon the number of juveniles who after being placed in the program actually wind up in prison? If this is the case I hardly feel this is a proper conclusion to draw. First, the program’s focus is on children who are on the very edge of winding up in a detention facility. Is it any surprise that these kids would ultimately fail? What you fail to address are the kids who are not as far down the road as those directly in the program. The kids watching the program. These are the kids who really benefit from this program.

    1. Carl,

      One of the (many) problems with the Scared Straight approach is that there is no standardized selection criteria to measure a participants risk or needs.

      It is generally a catch-all panacea mixing first -time, low-level offenders with chronic deliniquents.

      The failure is in a program design that ignores effective intervention principles.

      As you expressed an interest,
      here is more detailed information to review

  3. I agree that these kids need to have counseling, skill building, and other therapeutic behavior modifying alternatives. Howvever, I am NOT totally against the concept of Scared Straight. Prison isn’t pretty, and kids need to know the truth about the consequences of their choices, i.e. livivng in a cage with violent offenders and sexual predators. If it takes being faced with the harsh realities of prison life to get some of these kids to wake up to the opportunities around them, then so be it.

    I do believe that the program needs to be drastically revamped, with a lot less yelling and screaming. But I believe, for some, this may be an option. These are not the same kids I grew up with…

    I was born and raised in Baltimore, home of ‘The Wire’ and one of the country’s highest murder rates, so understand if my perspective is different. I have seen these so-called kids do things that are unthinkable to many.

    Before you criticize, consider your environment.

  4. Just for sh!ts and giggles, I’d like to point out that the members of the Lifers Group housed in the prison where Scared Straight originated (Rahway, as stated above), decided the best way to “reach the youth” was to release rap albums (an EP in 1991, and a full album in 1993). Full of boasting about how they shanked any one that messed with them, how cops should be shot, wonderful things. The two videos for the EP showed the “Scared Straight” members acting tough, wearing “gangsta gear”, and in one they all lined up while the camera panned over the group, showing them throwing up gang signs and looking “hard”. The original EP was supposedly released at the same time as a documentary on home video. I couldn’t find the VHS to save my life, but Canada’s “MuchMusic” did an hour long special on the Lifers Group. The special showed clips from the documentary I was seeking out, as well as an extended interview with the ‘VP of the Lifers Group, Maxwell Melvins[sp?]’. Just that short hour – where not a single positive thing was said about prison, but a multitude of very disturbing things that go on behind bars was emphasised – made more of an impact on me than all the Scared Straight programs over the last 40-some years, including the 2 rap tapes and videos.

  5. why aren’t the parents locked up with the kids??? why is there so much yelling?? no one likes to be yelled at!! haven’t seen the show…the ads 4 it turn me off!!

  6. Joe, I had the opportunity to watch the premiere last week while in Baltimore with my peers in the JDAI Applied Leadership Network. We also had the opportunity to listen to Bart Lubow’s (Annie E. Casey Foundation) thoughts, and I can say he agreed whole-heartedly with your assessment. Unfortunately, our nation is primed for the sensational and quick, semmingly easy fixes. Lasting change requires work, something we seem more and more adverse to. It’s nice to know we’re not alone in our battle to do what is best for kids. Thank you for bringing this to light.

  7. Doesn’t work. And it also puts your state in jeopardy of losing funding under the JJDPA because it violates the sight and sound separation core requirement.

  8. I once worked with parolees out of Rahway State Prison in New Jersey. I supervised them along with their parole officers, most of these people were from Newark’s central ward.

    The ‘Scared Straight’ program originated in the Rahway prison. The kids who participated in this project loved to boast about how they got to know real lifers and this increased their street status greatly.

    The parolees who were involved in the Fortune Society were dubious about how boasting about how tough prison is, would deter youth crime. We focused on ‘How to build a family, save a marriage’ for example. This meant, sessions with girlfriends of the parolees to teach them skills for managing their significant others including no sex until married, etc.

    This seemed to work better than anything I could devise, that is, once the women were aboard, it was easier to keep the men out of trouble. Positive reinforcement including help with housing, getting them out of bad neighborhoods, being involved in social systems like churches or mosques (even the Nation of Islam let me speak there about these issues). Positive measures coupled with instantly impounding them when they break the rules is what works.

    That is, to be on probation, you have a LOT of rules and we would show up at midnight to collar anyone breaking curfew, for example. You can’t fix broken children by scaring them. You have to supervise them closely just like we did with the parolees and our #1 source of information and the best pair of eyes available was the women who loved these men in trouble.

  9. Noah,
    The message boards are disheartening.
    There are so many concerned parents looking for answers and think Scared Stright is the quick fix they are seeking.
    Unfortunately change is hard. It takes work.


  10. You said: “This programming preys on parents and communities sometimes desperate to find a way to make an impact on a troubled youth.”

    I’ve looked at the message boards on the A&E site for this show and at several other websites covering the series, and the comment sections are filled with parents pleading for ways to include their children in this program. The potential impact of a show like this for recruiting desperate parents is scary.

    I’ve shared your post – hopefully some will read it.

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