Let’s hear it for compassion – finally…
There is only one problem: Scared Straight programs don’t work. Actually, it’s worse than that: They do more harm than good. Several well-designed studies have been conducted, in which at-risk youth were randomly assigned to take part in Scared Straight programs or to a control group that did not, and then all the kids were followed to see whether they got into trouble. (A good summary of these studies can be found here.) These studies found that the kids who took part in the scared straight programs were subsequently more likely to engage in criminal activity by 1 to 30 percent, with an average increase of 13 percent. As I note in my book, Redirect, the New Jersey program is ongoing and has served more than 50,000 kids. “Let’s do the math,” I said. “Using the 13 percent figure, we can estimate that the program has caused 6,500 kids to commit crimes they would not otherwise have committed.”
Why do scared straight programs backfire? No one knows for sure, but there are at least two possibilities. First, many of the kids who participate probably were not that inclined to join gangs or commit crimes to start with. Having convicts yell in their faces and tell them about prison rape may make them think, paradoxically, “Joining a gang must be pretty attractive if the authorities are going to such extremes to scare me out of it.” Second, there is evidence that bringing at-risk teens together can backfire, because they try to impress each other about how tough they are. Think about it-many 15-year-olds care much more about what their peers think of them than what authority figures want them to do.
I realize there are those in my profession who regard this as serious damage to the reputation of such. Personally, I’m delighted more and more of this is finally getting published.
It’s been so many years of psychology throwing its weight behind AA style interventions, boot camps, scared straight programs and, by doing so, even tacitly giving acceptance to the thinking underlying the (Sometimes even barbaric) behaviour modification camps fundamentalism has forced same-sex attracted children into in an attempt to reorient those who do not in any way desire reparative therapy. It’s really only in the last five years or so that the psychological community seems to have developed enough of a spine to stand up to the fear/shame-based bogus interventions of these ruling mega-powers of, “Therapy.”
In part, it’s just because enough information is leaking out via the internet that the general public is starting to get cynical about the actual effectiveness of what they are offering — and, in part, it is a result of ceasing to allow these organizations to stand by their own numbers and aggressively subjecting them to external audit and study.
When we do, it’s the sort of stark numbers this study is reporting: 6,500 more criminals on the streets than would otherwise have been there and $487,500,000.00 spent on incarcerating them each for only one year in the name of nothing more than a baseless and failed ideology of shame, fear and punishment — to say nothing of the cost to their victims…
Think about it:
If doing NOTHING results in 6,500 less young people being converted into hardened criminals, I wonder what a little love and compassion would do? And, what if we added a little group therapy to the mix for these kids? What if we threw in free counselling of any sort for all of their families as well? Think we would have a prayer of even spending 10% of that number – even if we tried??? (That’s 286,764 free counselling sessions BTW…)
What if we even tried REALLY HARD to provide unnecessary counselling??? 😉