On January 13, 2011, A&E launched the “Beyond Scared Straight” program series earning it the highest ratings in the station’s history. With 3.8 million views, Bob DeBitetto, President and General Manager of A&E Network and BIO Channel, says that, "We could not be more proud to have undertaken this groundbreaking series and the audience response is extremely rewarding. Beyond Scared Straight' truly exemplifies our unique brand of highly engaging programming with a focus on excellent storytelling and first-class auspices."
This is a devastating development as it promotes the spread of a noxious program. “Scared Straight” programs were condemned years ago by numerous authoritative and credible researchers. For example, in “Scared Straight Programs”, a 2006 report by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice examining the available research on these programs, including research funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the report notes that, “This means that not only is Scared Straight not effective at reducing future recidivism, it is in fact criminogenic.”
Additionally, "Scared Straight" programs violate the federal Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). According to the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), in its "Compliance Manual" for states, the policy says that, "Facilities must assure that no juvenile offender shall enter under public authority (i.e. while in the care, custody, or under the jurisdiction of law enforcement or the juvenile or criminal court, whichever is applicable) for any amount of time, into a secure setting or secure section of an adult jail, lockup or correctional facility as a disposition of an offense or as a means of modifying their behavior (.e.g. Shock Incarceration or Scared Straight)."
In response to the new A&E series, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) issued a statement questioning the value of the program and has been leading the national effort to raise concerns about this development. According to David Schmidt, CJJ National Chair and President of New Mexico Council on Crime and Delinquency, “Started years ago with good intentions, ‘Scared Straight’ approaches have now been well-evaluated and shown to have a damaging rather than positive impact. Research makes it clear that youth exposed to adult inmates, particularly in prison or jail settings, are at heightened risk of emotional harm and anxiety and receive harmful messages that lead to increased potential for them to commit delinquent offenses. Intentionally exposing youth to these risks, even for a short period of time in a controlled environment, is profoundly counterproductive.” A number of other organizations have weighed in as well.
In another position statement by the nationally recognized juvenile justice research organization, the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ), “Scared Straight or Just Scared? The False Promise and Potential Danger of Scared Straight Programs for Youth,” NCJJ Director Patricia Campie states that, “In fact, research has shown quite the opposite to be true (delinquency increases) and more troubling - the harm that can be produced by the type of intimidation and humiliation that youth experience in these programs can lead to tragic consequences.”
On the “Chowchilla” episode, young women who had been involved in the juvenile justice system for status offenses such as underage drinking and running away, for misdemeanors such as property offenses and probation violations, and drug offenses, were yelled at repeatedly in a degrading and humiliating way for hours. The demeaning and outrageous behavior exhibited by guards and inmates at the “Crossroads Program” at the Chowchilla facility only serves to underscore the serious, negative and life-threatening dangers that youth face when placed in adult jails, adult detention facilities and adult prisons.
In an A&E interview, Arnold Shapiro, the series author, states that he “sees no downsides” to the program. No downsides? It’s clear that Mr. Shapiro and the A&E producers are uninformed on the serious harmful impacts on young people when they are subjected to “Scared Straight” programs.
The value of the Scared Straight method of juvenile control is highly questionable. The value of Beyond Scared Straight the television show, is pure Hollywood. And the cost of both is far too great. Join organizations like the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in calling on A&E executives to rethink their carrying of the program Beyond Scared Straight and at the very least, offer some legitimate information to their viewership on the shortcomings of this approach.