Scared Straight: Scary Evidence


Source: Daniel Ramirez, Honolulu, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

“In prison for a day to stay out for life.” This is the hook from the popular reality show Beyond Scared Straight that airs on A&E. In it, kids who are at-risk for entering the criminal justice system are followed as they take part in a young offender intervention program in which they are taken into an adult prison and then guided through interactions with the inmates – sometimes in an educational way, sometimes confrontational – with the aim of ‘scaring them straight’ and preventing future offenses. ‘Scared Straight’ was one of the original juvenile delinquency prevention programs run in the 70s in the United States, but similar initiatives have spread internationally and are in current use.

Juvenile delinquency accounts for a significant proportion of offenses – 15% of all arrests in the US1 – and is a risk factor for later crime as an adult. A tough crime approach is supported by many, and combining that rationale with the very inexpensive implementation of these programs, means that a lot of people find this approach to be very appealing.

There have been questions about how well these programs work as deterrents for juvenile delinquency, though. In a high profile op-ed appearing in The Baltimore Sun in January 2011, the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs and the Acting Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the US pointed to a systematic review led by Anthony Petrosino2 as evidence that these interventions do more harm than good, and should not be operated.3

In the 2002 version of Petrosino’s review, the authors found that rather than act as a deterrent to prevent crime, programs like Scared Straight actually increased delinquency relative to doing nothing at all. The same research team has since updated their review, with the most recent version published in 2013.4 They found 9 trials (946 participants) that included delinquents or children at risk for delinquency, used random or quasi-random allocation, assigned participants to a juvenile awareness program or to a no-treatment control condition, and included at least one outcome measure of ‘post-visit’ criminal behaviour. The participants were almost all males and had an average age of 15-17 years.

They had one big finding:

  • Overwhelmingly, the intervention had a negative effect, failing to deter crime and actually leading to more offending behaviour (odds ratio 1.68, 95% confidence interval 1.20 to 2.36).

The authors concluded that they could not recommend using these types of programs to prevent juvenile delinquency, and that the relevant agencies must ensure that they’re not inadvertently causing more harm, both to the kids that they’re trying to protect, and to future victims of increased criminal behaviour.

Despite this very clear and consistent evidence, programs like Scared Straight continue to be implemented, helped in part by popular perception – which may be swayed by seeing shows like Beyond Scared Straight.

Dr. Vinesh Gupta, Section Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Edmonton, Alberta,shutterstock_86474341 and an adolescent forensic psychiatrist with the Turningpoint Program of Northern Alberta Forensic Psychiatry Services, says, “The media can have a positive as well as a negative effect on youth. An approach that attempts to scare youth off is not an efficient way of dealing with anti-social behaviours. If that were the case then a period of incarceration would automatically lead to reduction in recidivism in youth. That is the reason for the Young Offender Act in Canada to be based on the philosophy of rehabilitation and reintegration of youth, as it is well known that punishment does not necessarily act as a deterrent for anti-social behaviours.”


  1. US Census Bureau. Law enforcement: courts, prisons, and arrests, 2012
  1. Petrosino A, Turpin-Petrosino C, Buehler J. “Scared Straight” and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2002, Issue 2. [DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD002796]
  1. Robinson LO, Slowikowski. Scary – and ineffective: traumatizing at-risk kids is not the way to lead them away from crime and drugs. The Baltimore Sun January 31, 2011.
  1. Petrosino A, Turpin-Petrosino C, Hollis-Peel ME, Lavenberg JG. ‘Scared Straight’ and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD002796. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD002796.pub2.; Cochrane Summary