The second season of “Beyond Scared Straight” begins Thursday night and with it come renewed questions about its effectiveness. The reality program follows at-risk teens as they are threatened, screamed at, and harassed by prison inmates in an attempt to get them to change their ways. The show was A&E Network’s most watched debut in its history with 3.7 million viewers.
As JJIE reported at the time of the show’s debut in January, juvenile justice experts are concerned the show may be sending the wrong message. They point to studies that say scared straight-style programs are not only ineffective, but also counter-productive.
Joe Vignati is the head of justice programs at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in Georgia. In January, he wrote in an op-ed on JJIE.org that “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.”
“Academic studies don’t work,” Shapiro told JJIE in January. “It’s all about follow-up. I’ve done more follow-up than anyone. Scared Straight: 20 Years Later is the longest study ever done.”
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued a statement in January claiming, “’Beyond Scared Straight’ misrepresents the effectivenesss of such interventions with youthful offenders . . . It is clear these types of interventions as portrayed are neither developmentally appropriate nor trauma-informed.”
Disproportionate minority contact and detention of status offenders are the core issues for Georgia’s juvenile justice system, according to Joseph Vignati, Justice Programs Coordinator at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families. Vignati will testify at a hearing on reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in Washington D.C. this week. He speaks with a loud voice, because he’s also the National Juvenile Justice Specialist for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, representing 56 states and territories.
Vignati says the JJDP Act requires states to focus on four core issues:
- Removing juvenile offenders from adult jails
- Separating juveniles from adults if they are held in the same lockup
- Disproportionate minority contact
- Minimizing the detention of status offenders
He believes the first two issues are less significant now than they were 20 years ago, because Georgia and other states have laws against housing children with adults, and separate detention centers for kids. Vignati points out, “In FY 2009 we had only 23 juveniles locked up as adults across the state, and 20 of them lied about their age. We track it. We feel like we’ve addressed it. So this is not really an issue for us. Let us focus where we need to.”
At a time of shrinking resources, Vignati wants the federal government to allow states to focus on the current issues of DMC and DSO. “Our focus is on getting good data and using that data to help courts make changes.” Vignati believes , “if you’re tracking DMC in your state and you have a plan to deal with it, that’s not enough.”
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2009 has been the subject of numerous hearings, and much research. Hearings set for Wednesday and Thursday are being conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, which is doing a 2-year study for the Justice Department, to assess juvenile justice policies and practices. The study, announced on Monday, lists six goals:
- Assess OJJDP's activities to implement the JJDP Act
- Review the legislative history to ascertain congressional intent and identify major changes in the Act's core requirements
- Assess research on delinquency prevention and treatment and implications for public policy
- Review research on the transfer of juveniles to adult courts
- Evaluate data on the conditions of confinement for juveniles in juvenile and adult facilities
- Provide recommendations to improve federal and state policies.