“I feel like I’m at my wit’s end,” says a mother about her two kids on the A&E reality TV show “Beyond Scared Straight.” It’s a feeling many parents relate to before sending their kids to local “scared straight” programs.
Despite evidence that scared straight-type programs are ineffective and can even be harmful in the long run, many parents continue to turn to local jails for help when it comes to behavioral issues with their children.
“The programs are popular because parents think it’s a quick fix,” said Lt. Terron Hayes, director of intervention at the Dougherty County Sheriff's Office in Georgia.
Dougherty County administers its own youth intervention program, which has been featured several times on the A&E show. Since its television debut, Hayes says the Sheriff's office has had an influx of calls from parents who want to sign up their kids for the program. He says he’s had kids come in from other counties and even from other states across the Southeast.
Gladys Davis, of Bronwood, Ga., said she heard about the program through her adult son. Her 14- and 15-year-old sons had been fighting with each other.
“I tried everything I could do as a parent,” she said. She first tried reaching out to her local youth detention center, but was told the program there were more for youth who had committed more serious offenses. After hearing about Dougherty County’s program, she sent her sons to make an appointment with Hayes at the sheriff’s office in February and said they haven’t been back since.
“I’m just trying to get things under control so they won’t get too serious,” she said.
Hayes knows that the program won’t get federal or state funding, and says that the jail tours are only part of his program. He says he incorporates counseling sessions with both the parents and the children, and that following-up is essential.
He says that when parents call, they are often at a weak point in their relationships with their child.
“I have parents saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore, you’ll need to come get her, come get him – I don't want him anymore,’ Hayes said. “Because a parent has lost control, the parent is out of resources, what do they have left?”
Anthony Petrosino, senior researcher at WestEd, has done extensive research on scared straight programs and conducted meta-analysis studies looking at them. He said the message that these types of programs don’t work isn’t getting out to parents.
“We found that scared straight, on average, has a harmful impact,” Petrosino said. “There’s a disconnect between who’s getting the information and who isn’t.”
“The other thing is TV is powerful,” he said.
“Beyond Scared Straight” has had some of the highest ratings on the network and is now in its sixth season.
Petrosino says would he also receive calls from parents, uncles and pastors about how to get their children into a scared straight program, despite being a researcher. The parents weren’t reading his reports.
“When you do a Google search, my name comes up,” he said. “I said, ‘I can’t in good conscience recommend scared straight for your child.’”
He says he tries to direct them to local resources, but there’s a lack of awareness among parents on how to reach them.
“There’s a missing gap there. They shouldn’t be contacting me,” Petrosino said.
The program continues to remain attractive not just for parents, but for local county jails because they’re relatively cheap to run, he said. The inmates aren’t being paid for these programs and the jail tours often take groups of kids each time.
Many scared straight programs are also free, as it is in Dougherty County, which makes them appealing for parents who might not have a lot of resources.
Petrosino also mentioned in his report the “panacea phenomenon,” which researcher James Finckenauer studied in scared straight programs. He said it's the public and media’s “latching on for cure-alls” in something so complicated like crime.
“It’s very hard to come with a cure that’s going to turn them around,” he said. “These are complicated problems with complicated origins.”
Scared straight programs also fall in line with “tough on crime” mentality in the justice system, said Jeffrey Butts, director of research and evaluation at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and expert on criminal behavior.
“It’s a strong thing in America that we believe that being tough on people, punishing people, coercing them – basically forcing them to behave the way we want them to behave – it will somehow work,” he said.
He says that the scared straight programs might work if the person that’s trying to “scare” them is someone the young person trusted and loved.
“The basic flaw in the program is there’s no relationship formed,” he said.
Programs that have been proven to be ineffective, however, still continue, and scared straight programs aren’t the only ones. The D.A.R.E. drug prevention initiative, for instance, continues to be taught in certain schools despite the evidence it doesn’t work, Butts said.
Parents turning to local law enforcement to address behavioral problems aren’t uncommon, said Maj. Steven Strickland, director of field operations at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office in Georgia. Richmond County doesn’t have a scared straight program, but Strickland says he’ll often get calls from parents not knowing what to do with their child.
“We get a lot of folks that will bring their kids by and say kind of the same thing,” Strickland said. “They’ll say ‘I can’t make this kid do anything, you guys need to scare them.’”
But he says that law enforcement officials aren’t counselors.
“We’re acting out of our league sometimes,” Strickland said. “If you have a kid and he’s 10 years old and he’s troubled, there’s only so much we can do in 20 to 30 minutes.”
He says if a child has chronic issues, they need to be addressed over time by professionals who aren’t in law enforcement.
“Where we make our greatest impact, if there really is an issue, is getting them to the resources,” he said.
All photos from Beyond Scared Straight, Season 5: "Dougherty County, GA."
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The American Jail Association has again voiced its opposition to A&E’s controversial “Beyond Scared Straight,” a reality television show that follows troubled teenagers as they are supposedly terrified out of their devious ways by rowdy prison inmates. Now in its fourth season, the show premiered to record viewership in 2011, bringing in more than 3.7 million viewers for A&E. It has remained a popular staple for the network, despite proof that scared straight programming is ineffective and often harmful to youth.
So why is this television show, one that glorifies the abuse of young people and the shameful dehumanization of some of the most marginalized Americans, still on the air? Especially given that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the federal agency for juvenile justice in the United States has formally stripped all scared straight programs of funding, and written in a scathing report that “Traumatizing at-risk kids is not the way to lead them away from crime and drugs.”
To begin with, these programs mirror nicely the false, yet firmly held, belief that “tough on crime” approaches that emphasize punishment over prevention work best. More importantly, however, they ignore the fact that the ideas of punishment and fear on which our justice system are based are completely flawed.
The reality of scared straight programs is far from the pseudo reality of television. The truth about scared straight programs is that they are often interpreted as a challenge to troubled teens and as sport to inmates under pressure to behave like monsters, especially in front of cameras. What’s more, these shows put law enforcement at serious risk of liability. Nobody benefits from these encounters, and the volumes of evidence to that effect make it particularly startling that this television show remains on the air.
Consider some of the season 4 highlights listed on A&E’s website:
Returning inmate "Hustle Man", a ferocious incarcerated killer, is dragged away from the teens after he tries to attack.
12-year-old petty thief Alissa sobs uncontrollably at the sights and sounds of jail life, but, more shocking, her 14-year-old brother, himself having committed armed burglary and grand theft, refuses to comfort her amid the chaos.
An explosive giant, Joseph, assaults his little brother and his adoptive parents until he comes face-to-face with menacing convicts and deputies.
Aaron, a feisty habitual liar, initially confounds deputies by easily overcoming physical challenge during an exhausting all-night jail stay (returning fan favorite Richland County, SC) until deputies set their sights on getting inside his mind.
Do any of these highlights make this program sound anything other than abusive in nature? “Ferocious incarcerated killer,” “menacing convicts and deputies,” “deputies set their sights on getting inside his mind.” It’s our new coliseum. One could easily describe it as bullying.
And although bullying might be a fun way to get back at these “derailed, defiant, and disrespectful teens” as A&E calls them, it is hardly effective. In fact, a recent study by Dr. Michael G. Turner of the University of North Carolina – Charlotte found that young people who were victims of bullying had higher rates of illegal activity later in life; so rather than being scared into submission, they were motivated to defy authority and break the rules. The study recommended that intervention programs aimed at reducing involvement in crime and delinquency address bullying victimization as a risk factor – not include bullying as part of the program!
Parents and guardians desperate to get unruly teenagers in line may look to the programs depicted in this show as possible remedies, when in reality the programs do much more harm than good. It is high time that the truth about this show be heard loud and clear so that it may be taken off the air. Answers about what works best for troubled young people should be based in sound research, like Turner’s, not in storytelling aimed to generate profits for television networks. Our young people deserve better than that.
Paige Pihl Buckley grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts and currently lives in Boston’s Savin Hill neighborhood. She graduated magna cum laude from Boston University’s College of Communication in May 2012, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Print Journalism, with a minor in African studies. She was a four year Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar, one of only twelve at Boston University, and was inducted into BU’s Scarlet Key Society her senior year. She began working as an intern for Strategies for Youth in September of 2011 and was hired full-time as Communications Coordinator upon her graduation from Boston University.
Douglas County, Ga., is about 40 miles from Kennesaw State University, where we publish the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. However, it is light years away, really light years behind, what our reporting and commentary have been saying about Scared Straight programs since 2011. Scared Straight programs don’t work. More Scared Straight kids end up as recidivists than similar kids who don’t go through these programs.
So we are perplexed why Douglas County would run a Scared Straight program and even more perplexed why officials there would agree to let the “Beyond Scared Straight” A&E TV crew tape an episode that will air tonight. It features two teenage sisters who are humiliated and intimidated in a way that if you and I did it to our own kids in public we would be the ones thrown in jail.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s office is so far out of touch with present day reality and research that officials there literally use a mace, a medieval weapon, to symbolize their Scared Straight program. I am not making this up. Right on the web page explaining what their M.A.C.E. (Making A Change Early) program is all about, is a drawing of a mace with this caption: “The overwhelming usefulness of the mace was its ability to generate enormous swinging force that could bring a tremendous blow to an opponent.”
The mace in the drawing is a club with a chain on the end tethered to a steel ball with spikes. See, you swing that club and crack your opponent’s skull open with the spiked ball. Now, we have been wielding the best practice research and our commentary as kind of a gentle club, but alas, we are apparently dealing with some very thick-skulled and thick-skinned policy makers in Hollywood and in Douglas County.
First there are the executives at the Walt Disney Company and Hearst Corporation, the parent companies of A&E TV, which produces the disgusting “Beyond Scared Straight.” It’s a program built on demeaning and threatening young boys and girls, apparently in a quest to build audience and reap profits. Why else would Disney and Hearst back the long discredited Scared Straight programs?
We are not so sure of Douglas County Sheriff Phil Miller’s motives. His mission statement for the M.A.C.E. program, which will be featured on “Beyond Scared Straight” tonight, reads: “The basic premise for this program is one of deterrence; the belief that realistic and aggressive exposure to prison life and inmates will cause youth to refrain from delinquency due to fear of the consequences of the bad behavior and ensuing incarceration.”
Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director at the Coalition of Juvenile Justice, a network of organizations dedicated to keeping children and youth out of court, told our JJIE.org reporter Maggie Lee that these tactics don’t make the kids more timid. In fact, it will “harden their bravado” and make the kids want to affiliate with the nasty talking inmates who have the most power.
In other words, it is more likely to have them pick up a mace and pop someone upside the head to demonstrate who has the power.
So, as I did two years ago, I call on the Walt Disney Company CEO, Robert A. Iger, to pull “Beyond Scared Straight” off the air because it touts a program that does not work and also demeans the very children Disney claims to shower with wholesome programing.
Here is a promotional blurb for this season’s “Beyond Scared Straight”: “Returning inmate ‘Hustle Man,’ a ferocious incarcerated killer, is dragged away from the teens after he tries to attack.” Is that promotion about wholesome programing or about greed of the worst kind? Come on CEO Bob Iger, give us an answer.
I also invite Sheriff Miller down to Kennesaw State University to meet the folks who run our Master’s and Ph.D. programs in conflict management. They can tell you a few things about how violence begets violence and why piling trauma on kids who have suffered trauma their whole lives is not such a smart approach. Ever hear of programs like restorative justice? Come on down, Sheriff Miller, and when you do, please lock the Scared Straight cell door behind you -- forever.
This week, the fourth season of the A&E TV show “Beyond Scared Straight” follows two young sisters to the adult jail in Douglas County, Ga., where one inmate tells one of the sisters how she could beat her up “and make you not so pretty no more.”
Plenty of critics pan the show, saying it publicizes a discredited, harmful practice. Neither Georgia nor the feds will fund such jail tour programs, citing both evidence that it doesn’t work and the liabilities jails take on when they invite minors to meet with inmates.
“I still break the same law that sent me there,” said Pete Thomas, 27, of Atlanta, who for that reason spoke under a pseudonym. Ten years ago in central Florida’s Lake County, deputies pulled Thomas over and found him carrying less than 20 grams of marijuana. A scared straight-type visit to the county jail was part of his sentence in “Teen Court,” a diversionary program for young offenders.
“They tried to intimidate everyone in the group as much as possible, singled me out for having long hair, and the inmates acted crazed,” said Thomas, adding that he already knew people in that jail and that they were encouraged to lay it on thick.
That illustrates some of the objections to jail awareness programs detailed by Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director at the Coalition of Juvenile Justice, a network of organizations dedicated to keeping children and youth out of court.
A kid’s response to such aggressive tactics, said Hornberger, is to “harden their bravado.”
And besides that, she said there’s another phenomenon that makes the bigger bully the winner: affiliation with the aggressor. “The group that is seen to have the greater power,” Hornberger said, “the [kids] will affiliate themselves with.”
She said there’s not a shred of evidence that scared straight-type jail tours work.
Anthony Petrosino agrees. He’s a researcher at WestEd, a research nonprofit and an author of an influential 2002 meta-analysis of scared straight studies.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“We’ve got a real serious ethical program here.”[/module]“This program doesn’t have any positive effect and it may very well hurt the kids that are in the program,” he said. Petrosino and his team revisited the topic in 2012, trying to add more studies to their analysis. There were none to add and thus no new conclusions to make. Petrosino said that’s likely because scared straight is seen as a discredited program, so no one studies it anymore.
“We’ve got a real serious ethical program here,” said Professor Del Elliott, the founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We’ve got a TV production that’s promoting a program which is doing harm to our children.”
Elliott called for the show to be taken off the air.
“No program works 100 percent, let’s be real about that,” said Elliott, but he pointed to dozens of programs that he said are proven to do good work, most especially two types of family therapy.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“What they’re telling them is the way it is … we try to make it as real as possible." [/module]Previous episodes of “Beyond Scared Straight” do move beyond the eye-catching ads that show inmates berating youth. Episodes and programs vary but in some, inmates talk calmly to the kids; some are kept a certain distance from the visitors. Sometimes the kids wear prison jumpsuits and are locked in a cell, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it shows local law enforcement following up with the kids and parents.
Petrosino said the data he saw was not extensive enough to tease out any nuances: if any particular exercises are any better or worse.
Thomas’ Lake County sentence did include plenty of other things besides the jail visit: a letter of apology to the arresting officer, more than 40 hours of community service and six months of drug counseling.
Ironically, he learned about more drugs, especially experimental hallucinogens, as part of the counseling and his assignment to research and write a paper on the uses, effects and history of marijuana.
“My long story short, I explored more drugs than I ever knew existed, possibly as a direct result of the experience,” said Thomas.
In Douglas County, kids are screened to see if they’re a good fit for their jail visit program, Making A Change Early, or MACE, said Chief Deputy Sam Copeland.
“It’s more for the person who’s on the edge,” he said, doing things like sneaking out at night, drinking or just having a bad attitude. The program serves youths aged 13 to 17 who are leaning toward delinquency, not a youth who has already been in custody.
Copeland said his inmates are probably hamming it up a little for the kids, but “what they’re telling them is the way it is … we try to make it as real as possible. You got to have a shock factor.
We want them to understand the lack of privacy, the lack of being able to do what you normally would do,” Copeland said.
After the jail tour, the kids see Magistrate Judge Barbara Caldwell. “They have to go before her and convince her that they should be released,” said Copeland.
MACE began only in 2011, so Copeland said they do not yet have a lot of statistical data, but “so far, when we go back to these parents we have phenomenal results back from the parents.”
Copeland added, to “take away a tool that is available, that might help a youth, I’ve always thought is ridiculous.”
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]"What I would encourage folks to do is take a look at what research says."[/module]Georgia’s Governor’s Office for Family and Children looks in on scared straight programs when they hear of them and explain their concerns as they relate to both federal and state law.
Jail awareness tours may be legally risky for counties: Georgia’s adult jails are not allowed to “receive” accused or adjudicated persons under the age of 17.
Housing juveniles in an adult facility in contravention of state law would expose a county to liabilities that may far outweigh short-term savings.
"What I would encourage folks to do is take a look at what research says," said Joe Vignati, justice division administrator at the Governor's Office for Children and Families.
"Focus your energies and support … your choices, your dollars, your votes on things that are shown to reduce crime," he continued.
"Does this [scared straight] reduce crime? No it doesn't," he concluded.
Free Polazzo, a former teacher, and a current Douglas County activist, wants his sheriff to end MACE.
“I worry that they’re learning about how to do bad things and not get caught, and they also learn that grownups solve problems by ‘grounding’ people for years,” said Polazzo. He prefers that educators, faith groups, communities and families teach children.
He especially touts Help Increase the Peace, a Quaker-developed workshop where young people learn how to solve conflict nonviolently.
“We should not want our sheriff to be responsible or feel responsible for educating our children,” said Polazzo. “We elect sheriffs to be tough guys, but to expect a man who has to be that tough … he shouldn’t be expected to know all the ways of education.”
Beyond Scared Straight Producer Arnold Shapiro, on behalf of himself and his production team, declined to speak to JJIE.
As for Thomas, he said he no longer drives around with marijuana. He said he’s “calmed down” a little bit and doesn’t chase synthetic highs anymore.
“As far as what I recommend to law enforcement and families,” said Thomas, is “youth involvement. Idle hands are the devil’s tools. Rehabilitation is greater than incarceration. Less sugar, more books. Less reality TV, more Nova.”
The controversial A&E Network series “Beyond Scared Straight” returns August 20 for a third season. If this 30-second teaser from A&E is any indication, viewers can expect more episodes filled with inmates and prison guards yelling at, verbally abusing and intimidating at-risk teens, with the apparent goal of creating “powerful experiences” that “break down walls” so that “kids will listen,” according to the video.
But while the television show may be enormously popular with viewers – in 2011 receiving A&E’s highest ratings ever for a series premier – experts nearly unanimously agree that Scared Straight-style programs create higher incidences of recidivism and do more harm than good for teens, and they can point to nearly 30 years of research as evidence.
“It is more likely to create kids who are going to get in trouble,” Joe Vignati, national juvenile justice specialist on the Executive Board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, told JJIE in January 2011, when the series first premiered.
In a 2000 report by Anthony Petrosino, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino and James O. Finckenauer that examines the effectiveness of Scared Straight-style programs, the authors write, “Few programs were as popular or well intentioned as Scared Straight. Yet, despite such popularity and benevolence, there is little evidence to suggest that the program is a deterrent to subsequent juvenile crime and delinquency. In contrast, the evidence strongly suggests that it leads to more crime by program participants.” In fact, the study found that Scared Straight-style programs increased crime between 1 percent and 28 percent in experimental groups when compared to groups who did not participate in similar programs.
Based in part on these studies, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJPD) “discouraged” the use of Scared Straight-style programs.
But Scared Straight programs remain popular because “they fit with common notions by some on how to prevent or reduce crime (by 'getting tough')” and because “they are very inexpensive (a Maryland program was estimated to cost less than $1 U.S. per participant),” according to a second report authored by Petrosino, Turpin-Petrosino and John Buehler and most recently updated in November 2004.
So if Scared Straight doesn’t work what are the alternatives?
Research suggests mentoring may be the best option, according to an op-ed by Jeff Slowikowski, then the acting OJJDP administrator, and Laurie Robinson, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, published by The Baltimore Sun in February 2011.
“Mentoring programs have been found to be effective in reducing incidents of delinquency, substance use and academic failure in participating youth,” they wrote. “Research has shown that mentoring relationships that last at least 12 months or through an entire school year are most effective. Further, youth in long-term mentoring relationships tend to improve their self-esteem, social skills and outlook about their future.”
Among mentoring programs for youth, the most well known may be Big Brothers Big Sisters. But other programs focus on specific populations of youth. We Stand for Kids, for example, works with the children of incarcerated adults with the hope of ending the cycle of incarceration.
Contact with inmates or offenders isn’t always negative, however, according to research by Phillip D. Holley and Dennis Brewster. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) instituted a program called “Speak Out” that takes offenders directly to the kids in schools or churches. Speaking about their own experiences, the offenders “attempt to inform community youth/parents/adults, etc. about the evils of crime, gang involvement, and life in prison,” according to the study, and to do so without the intimidation of typical Scared Straight-style programs.
A similar program in Texas known as Operation Kick-It brings inmates – dressed in their white prison jumpsuits – to high schools and to meet with other groups to speak to at-risk youth without the “audience intimidation and scare tactics,” according to Holley and Brewster. It is estimated the groups of inmates make more than 1,000 appearances a year and have spoken with between 200,000 and 300,000 youth since the program’s inception.
According to Strategies for Youth, effective youth programs should:
- Provide large amounts of meaningful contact
- Have a longer duration
- Be “designed by a researcher or have research as an influential component of the treatment setting”
- Offer behavioral, skill-oriented and multi-modal treatment
- Be gender-specific and sensitive
The “Beyond Scared Straight” message: “In prison for a day to stay out for life” certainly appeals to a television audience. The hit series from Disney’s A&E Network became the most watched original series launch in the network’s history with an audience of 3.7 million people. The show is a spin off of the multiple award-winning documentary films also produced by Arnold Shapiro.
But do “scared straight” programs really work to reduce juvenile crime? “No,” claimed Professor James Finckenauer, Ph.D., from Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, in his address to the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in New York City in July. Finckenauer, author of “Scared Straight! and the Panacea Phenomenon,” cogently explained why those programs don’t work by examining the concept of “deterrence” as applied to teenage thinking and behavior.
I confess, I was one of the judges who accepted the evidence that “scared straight,” programs didn’t work, but I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I thought, I certainly would have been “scared straight” after experiencing a day in prison, including being yelled at by brutal inmates, clanging bars, menacing guards, etc. Why wouldn’t it work on at-risk teens? What was wrong with the headline: “They think they’re fighters. Will it change when they can’t fight back?”
Plenty, according to Finckenauer. First, “Scared straight” programs arise out of the concept of “vicarious deterrence,” which he defined as “avoiding behavior by experiencing what happens to others.”
“Those programs require young people to project into the future,” Finckenauer said. “Teenagers don’t think like that, they don’t think logically or long term. That’s why they’re kids. They are impulsive, and think short term, especially when it comes to punishment.”
Finckenauer mentioned a kind of “optimism” that works against vicarious deterrence. “Kids know how hit and miss the criminal justice system is. They believe they might not get caught when they think about committing a crime. What young people react to is: (1) How swift is the punishment in terms of the behavior? (2) How certain is it that a consequence will occur? and (3) How severe is the punishment? The extreme nature of the punishment shown in “scared straight” programs doesn’t match the expectations of young people. They don’t picture themselves locked up.
“Scared straight programs are developed by adults for kids, but kids don’t react the same way as adults,” Finckenauer said. That’s why the television series is popular with adults, but unsuccessful with kids.
“Big, muscular, tough guys are what the kids see during a prison tour as the inmates yell and scream at them in the hopes of scaring them out of committing a crime,” Finckenauer said. “Kids don’t see beaten down losers.” It’s a disconnect.
Most helpful to the judges in the audience was Finckenauer’s discussion of deterrence in the general population. “There are three general types,” he said. “First, the undeterrable, the psychopaths, where deterrence doesn’t work at all. Then, at the opposite end are the Catholic nuns, who are already deterred. Finally, in the middle is the great mass of the public, those who are tempted to cheat on a tax return, to run a red light, to fudge on an application, and that’s the group that responds to deterrence to stay honest.”
So why is “Beyond Scared Straight” A&E’s most watched program?
“There’s a gut level attractiveness,” Finckenauer said. “An inside look at prisons, clanging doors, delinquent kids. It makes for great visual appeal and good sound bites. Also, there’s a great deal of frustration with perceived liberal treatment of young offenders.”
Perhaps adult viewers are vicariously experiencing their own “get tough on kids” viewpoint.
That’s where A&E’s “Scared Straight” programming could be harmful, I thought. It diverts public support from the evidence-based programs that do work, in the areas of prevention, intervention, diversion, mental health and family counseling. As juvenile judges, we were taught that sanctions for kids should be swift, certain, and appropriately severe. Parents are taught the same in parenting classes. Why then would we think that the opposite would work? “Beyond Scared Straight” makes a good TV program for adults, but it’s a lousy concept for keeping at-risk kids out of trouble.
What at-risk kids need are jobs. Jobs will keep them out of prison while a 'scared straight' experience won't. Jobs dignify them, put legal money in their pockets, and provide mentoring and career goal opportunities. It's the employer, small or large businessman, non-profit executive, teacher or community volunteer whose lives they should be experiencing, not the convicted, imprisoned felon.
Given the Disney channel’s financial success with the “Beyond Scared Straight” series, why don’t we challenge Disney to donate a portion of its profits to one of the foundations that does so much for at-risk kids such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Eckerd Family Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or the Henry and Ryla White Foundation? Any of these worthy foundations could design a practical program to provide jobs for at-risk kids. They would also put the money to good use in proven programs that truly do turn around at-risk kids.
What about that, Disney?
An Open Letter to
Robert A. Iger, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company
Dear Mr. Iger:
I know Disney is a large company and you, like Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, can’t oversee everything. So I want to let you know about one of your company’s investments -- Disney’s one-third equity stake in the A&E Television Networks. Since it is not fully under Disney’s control, maybe that’s why you haven’t been watching A&E’s "Beyond Scared Straight." Certainly if you had, you would have intervened and pulled it off the air, but alas last week marked the beginning of its second season.
I am calling your attention to "Beyond Scared Straight" because it doesn’t at all fit the core principles of the Disney Corporation. I am sure you have read those core principles, maybe you even helped write them because they are front and center on your website.
Here, I will reprint them as a reminder:
Three core principles help guide our daily decisions and actions:
- Act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions
- Champion the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families in our endeavors
- Inspire kids, parents, employees and communities to make a lasting, positive change in the world
Let’s take them one at time:
- Act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions
The evidence is in, the Scared Straight program where kids are sent into prisons to be scared straight, does not work. Experts writing for JJIE.org and at other reputable publications have made it very clear that volumes of research have shown the Scared Straight approach does not work. Here is what Joe Vignati, director of Justice Programs at the Georgia Governor's Office For Children and Families, recently wrote: “The scared straight approach is an inappropriate and unacceptable means for disciplining children. This approach has been shown to cause short- and long- term harm and actually INCREASES the likelihood of re-offending among some participants.”
Of course, you are free to argue with Mr. Vignati and the scores of researchers, but if by chance, you might believe in empirical evidence, then you might ask yourself and the folks at A&E if all of you have acted in an ethical manner and considered the consequences of your decision to subject these kids to the public humiliation they receive on the show.
That brings us the second of Disney’s core principles:
- Champion the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families in our endeavors
Does that principle include having several hulking adults surround individual teenagers and scream at them until the teens break down into tears? Does championing their well being include dressing them up in prison stripes and have then duck walk across the prison floor in front of your two million-plus viewers who watched the show last week? Does it include threatening to toss one of the teens into a cell with a prisoner who eyes the boy up and down and smiles big -- or coupling him with a big ugly guy who wants to make him his girlfriend with the complicity of the guards? You know what Mr. Iger, I found it down right disgusting and I do believe it tarnishes your image and Walt Disney’s legacy that has been put in your trust.
The final Disney core principle:
- Inspire kids, parents, employees and communities to make a lasting, positive change in the world
If you think screaming at kids until it gets your stomach churning is inspiration to make a lasting change, then sir, you and Disney have a problem.
Enough, please do me a favor, watch the program, then call your equity partners at the Hearst Corporation and NBCUniversal and pull this show off the air now. Then apologize to everyone who really cares about kids and then invest some real money in the kids who have been in the program and get them the help they need to lead productive lives.
Sheriff Chipp Bailey, of Mecklenburg County, N.C., has confirmed to JJIE his office received a $10,000 donation from the producers of “Beyond Scared Straight” following the appearance of the county’s “Reality Program” on the controversial A&E television show.
Bailey said the money, provided by Arnold Shapiro Productions, would be used to offset the costs of the food and field trips that are part of the aftercare portion of the “Reality Program." It is unclear whether the producers have made similar payments to other programs filmed for “Beyond Scared Straight”.
The “Reality Program” is designed, according to Bailey, to educate at-risk youth on the realities of prison life and help them avoid making decisions that would land them in jail. In the initial portion of the program, teens are brought to the county jail, and dressed in prison uniforms while deputies intimidate, yell at and berate them. They are shown the jail, placed in cells and eventually meet real inmates who talk about their own lives and the mistakes they’ve made.
A month later, the teens return for the aftercare portion of the program where they can follow up with deputies and talk about the changes in their lives. Bailey says this part of the program is essential to its success.
“You’ve got to break them down first,” Bailey said, “then you can build them back up.”
Bailey said he believes Scared Straight-style programs that do no involve an aftercare program “wouldn’t be worth anything.” It’s the combination of the initial boot camp atmosphere followed by the counseling and relationship building that makes the program so effective, he said.
If it all seems harsh it’s because, “we don’t want to make jail somewhere they want to come,” Bailey said.
I just watched the first episode of this season of A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight.” This was my first exposure to the show. JJIE.org has covered the details of this program and experts have weighed in about it in this space, from knowledgeable, yet slightly removed positions.
For me, however, it was a strange and personal experience. Watching the show I was flooded by memories of my own time in prison, both as a young man and as an older prisoner in contact with “at risk youth.” I felt waves of emotion, mostly negative, as I watched fear and intimidation used, along with a smattering of humane connection, to bring about change in these young people.
When I first arrived at the youth prison in Alto (a notorious prison at the time in north Georgia) in 1985, I was placed in a dorm. The officer told us that if we were fighting and refused to stop when he called “break,” he would “bust our ‘tater” with his billy club.
This same officer, after catching me in an infraction, had me squat and walk around the dorm, quacking like a duck. I did this because I feared refusing and facing more severe punishment. This memory came back to me as I watched a similar scene on the show. The use of mindless exercise as punishment seemed similarly sadistic to me. I do not recall that this experience had any positive effect on me. Conversely, I instead became more skilled at not getting caught.
I was particularly disturbed by the threats of assault, extortion, rape and sexual slavery that were used in “Beyond Scared Straight,” to persuade the children that prison was not a good place to be. Not only did the prisoners use these threats, they were reinforced by the guards and even some of the parents. I saw all of these acts carried out during my time in prison, and to imagine that they would be endorsed in any fashion seems insane to me. I cannot imagine that threatening a child with rape will ever have a good result.
It seems that these types of behaviors appeal to the people who watch the show. Perhaps they experience some vicarious satisfaction in seeing people threatened and humiliated “for a good cause.” Like in a Hollywood movie, they enjoy seeing the bad kids get their comeuppance. Then, in the end, their sadistic fascination is justified, thanks to professional editing, when the children magically become “good.”
The scenes that brought back good memories for me were when the prisoners actually talked to the kids about their lives and experiences. When this authentic human communication was happening it seemed that the kids opened up and considered their own lives.
This was my experience when I had the opportunity to talk with young people from schools, YDCs and alternative programs. In one group we met with children every month of the school year. We were able to establish rapport and trust, and when we spoke about our lives they listened. In these meetings we learned about them and the problems they were facing.
For many of them there was little parental support. Often their parents were prisoners or drug addicts. For some of them we were the first adults they felt truly connected to, and because of that I believe we had a positive influence. When I saw the prisoners in the program really talking to the kids instead of playing a role, it seemed that the youngsters were listening. Kids can sense authenticity, and in those moments when the guards and prisoners were being honest, I think there was a positive effect.
Why cloud that with threats and manufactured stress and drama?
In my experience, most people respond to honesty and empathy. When a sergeant featured in the show was sharing that her mother was a drug addict, and that she understood the temptation to act tough, she was connecting with a kid named Jose in a way that helped him see himself. When she was screaming at him, or letting prisoners threaten him with rape and assault, he was further away from change than ever. Fear can create change, but it is usually short term, and it almost always comes at the price of resentment and hardening of the heart.
As appealing as the tactics displayed in “Beyond Scared Straight” might be to some, even if their motivation to help is honest, they are not as effective as programs that foster real connection and understanding.
I believe that not only are they unhelpful, they are actually harmful in the long run.
Over 110 years ago in Chicago, America changed direction in its criminal justice system and began to recognize the needs of young people required differential treatment when compared to the needs of adults. This was the birth of the juvenile justice system we now have today. More than a century of research and best-practice support this founding premise that youth are fundamentally different than adults, in both their level of responsibility as well as their potential for rehabilitation. This investment in the potential of our young is reaping positive benefits.
Juvenile crime is trending downward. According to the U.S. Department of Justice
- Between 1994 and 2001, violent crime arrest rates declined for all age groups, but the declines were greater for juveniles than for adults. More specifically, the rates dropped 43 percent for youth ages 15-17, compared with 23 percent for adults ages 18-24, 27 percent for those ages 25-29, and 19 percent for those ages 30-39.
- The national juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate fell for the second consecutive year and is down 5 percent since 2006.
As these numbers seem to indicate, the application of scientific principles to juvenile justice is not “being soft on crime” but in fact, an effective crime prevention strategy.
In spite of these successes, our juvenile system is under attack:
- Critical juvenile justice funding is at stake
- On the federal level, Congress has cut federal juvenile justice funds it provides to states more than 50 percent in the past 10 years and even more draconian cuts are being considered.
- Many state budgets have been squeezed by the economic downturn and one of the more popular cuts has been juvenile services.
- The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the federal office under the Department of Justice that oversees juvenile justice still has not had an administrator appointed, a vacancy of more than more than 900 days, leaving a void in national leadership and advocacy.
- Season 2 of Beyond Scared Straight premieres, Thursday August 18th on A&E
After becoming the highest rated program in the history of the Disney-owned A&E network, a new season of this “reality” show returns to titillate the curious and misinformed. (See my previous piece on the dangers of Scared Straight.)
While the first two bullets are disheartening to juvenile justice professionals nationally, it is the third bullet, “Beyond Scared Straight,” that will be my focus.
- Several states suspending or discontinuing this programming (California, Maryland, Rohde Island and South Carolina)
- 20+ years of scientific research that shows the negative results of this type of programming
- Position pieces by the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges condemning Scared Straight programming
The producers of “Beyond Scared Straight” think they are the experts. They know more than juvenile justice researchers, practitioners and juvenile court judges who deal with youth on a daily basis? Why? What could be the possible reason? Is it their education? Is it proven results? Is it overly inflated Hollywood egoism? Do they truly have a better idea for helping children?
No, the producers just have a better soapbox. This television show is their cash cow.
They are lining their pockets on the misery of children (and hapless prison accomplices) while enhancing the bottom line of the network’s parent company Disney. Watch if you will, but know what you are supporting.
Now for even bigger questions:
Why should we support programming that uses threats of physical and sexual violence against children in order to (hopefully) change their behavior? Would we allow our school teachers to engage in this type of behavior? More importantly, would we allow parents to engage in this behavior? ‘Scared Straight’ models the very behaviors we are attempting to prevent our young from engaging!
Let’s say what the producers of this program are afraid to admit:
The scared straight approach is an inappropriate and unacceptable means for disciplining children. This approach has been shown to cause short- and long- term harm and actually INCREASES the likelihood of re-offending among some participants.
Given the nature of the abuses witnessed over the show’s first season, I am surprised that child abuse/maltreatment charges have not been brought forth.
Should we as a society give in to our base impulses, give up and embrace the bleak vision ‘Scared Straight’ offers our children?
There is a difference between tough love and abuse. There is a difference between holding youth accountable and punishment. And there is a critical difference between a parent and a prisoner.
‘Scared Straight’ programming follows a course of action that is at odds with reason, compassion and scientific principles. It is a desperate short-sighted, short-term solution offered to frustrated parents and juvenile administrators to solve a long-range problem, changing the behavior of their youth.
Unfortunately there are no short-cuts. There is not a magic vaccine to inoculate against juvenile crime. Now is not the time to turn our back on the investments we have made, the knowledge gained through research and the countless lives changed through the application of these scientific principles.
We must stay the course set more than 110 years ago.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. --Thomas Paine