Information Sharing

Scared Straight

Hi All,

This message just came to me from a Youth Partnership group that I belong to.  I am very concerned about the “Scared Straight” paradigm, and to my knowledge there is no evidence that this kind of traumatic experience makes long term positive change in behavior.  Although, there is plenty of evidence to support trauma of this nature can cause long term negative impact on the developing child. Any thoughts … or research articles you can recommend to help me out in my response to the Youth Partnership member who sent the request?

I was contacted by A&E TV about their program, Beyond Scared Straight.  They will be in our area to do a show.  They are interested in connecting with teens who might be helped by this experience.  If you know of any teens who might benefit from participating in their program or have other contacts who might know of teens,

Michele Tryon

4 Comments to “Scared Straight”
  1. In Canada, Scared Straight is often mentioned to prove that not all programs work and why research is necessary. Apparently, some research suggested that Scared Straight actually encouraged more delinquent behaviour. It was assumed that visits to prisons actually normalized the experience and made heroes of the inmates. This is just hearsay, I do not know the references. I would be surprised if the program is still offered. This is not to say that there wouldn’t be teens who were helped…

    Janice MacAulay

  2. Timothy Wilson’s book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change (2011) has this on Scared Straight (pp.137) (emphasis, here underlining, is in the original:

    …we need to conduct rigorous tests of social programs such as Scared Straight. The only way we can tell what effect they have is by randomly assigning kids to a coup that goes through the program or to a control group that does not. Several studies have done just that, and the results are remarkable in both their consistency and direction: not only do scared-straight programs fail to reduce the likelihood that kids will commit crimes, they actually increase criminal activity. A review of seven experimental tests that measured how likely participants and nonparticipants were to commit crimes, in time periods ranging from three to fifteen months after a scared-straight intervention, found that the kids who attended the interventions were more likely to commit crimes than were kids in the control groups in every single study. The increase in criminal activity among the scared-straight kids ranged from 1 percent to 30 percent, with an average of 13 percent….

    (p.138) Scared-straight programs …do more harm than good…. The problem is that the programs provide kids with external motivation – wanting to avoid the horrors of prison – that can, paradoxically, undermined their internal motivation to take the straight path.

    All best,

  3. Hi all:
    Sorry for the delay – I had to check something out with a colleague, Dr. John McLennan who did a review of the research on ‘evidence’ of program effectiveness a few years ago, and I recalled him mentioning something about Scared Straight. I have his permission to include his reply:
    You are correct, Scared Straight is one of the programs I would worry about given that there is evidence of a harmful effect (let alone no effect!), i.e., summarizing the data, the average kid going through Scared Straight is worse than those not exposed to the program. This was reported on several years ago in a good meta-analysis written by Petrosino et al. and published through the Campbell collaboration (a credible source, the social science version of the Cochrane Collaboration)….the full report is available at this website:

    Hope this is helpful,
    Warm regards,