Scared Straight Tactics Don’t Work

Recently, I wrote about how locking up youth in juvenile hall only increased the chances that they would reoffend. This was based on the new study, “No Place for Kids.” 

Another report that came out earlier this year, “Evidence-Based Interventions for Juvenile Offenders and Juvenile Justice Policies that Support Them,” takes a look at what works and what doesn’t. According to the study, only 5 percent of eligible youthful offenders are treated with an evidence-based service. Evidence-Based services are ones that have been demonstrated to be successful.

Many juvenile offender services are not effective and some methods, like “shock incarceration treatment,” such as Scared Straight, actually worsen anti-social behavior. Unfortunately, with TV reality shows touting such interventions, communities continue to support these high-profile, ineffective programs. The thinking is: ‘We will just scare them into changing their ways.’ Only by looking at the studies do we see that mixing youthful offenders with adult criminals, or with like-minded peers, only increases the chances that they will commit another crime. 

What works to turn kids’ lives around? 

Research shows that addressing key risk factors like improving family functioning, developing relationships with caring adults, and improving school performance in the youth’s natural environment decreases criminal behavior. Behavioral treatment such as multi-systemic therapy (MST) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) not only improve outcomes for children but are less expensive. Unfortunately, time and time again, we see juvenile justice policy driven by communities that don’t like the idea of “coddling” juvenile offenders and want them locked up. Their focus is punishment, not change.

Digging through my files, I came across an article written by J. Edgar Hoover for the defunct “The American Magazine” in January 1955.  In his article, “You Can Help Stop Juvenile Crime,” the former FBI director warned that the undermining of traditions, customs and a lack of respect was creating kids who did not recognize the difference between good and evil.

Quoting J. Edgar Hoover: “…There are several other steps we can take to reduce delinquency at once. One of these is to stop mollycoddling juvenile criminals. It is against the instincts of most Americans to get tough with children. But the time has come when we must impose sterner penalties and restrictions on young lawbreakers for the protection of the law-abiding.

“I do not mean that I would favor imprisoning every boy and girl found guilty of a minor offense. I agree with those judges who hesitate to send juveniles to penal institutions or reform schools, which neither reform nor rehabilitate youngsters. But it is imperative for those same judges to impose much stricter conditions on the release of juvenile offenders, because, time after time, those freed under slack supervision or in custody of their parents promptly return to their criminal ways.”

Surprisingly, J. Edgar Hoover’s myths remain today:

— Juvenile crime is increasing—when the truth is that it has been dropping for years.
— Scaring kids will steer them away from crime—when studies show it only encourages them.
— Locking kids up deters them from committing future crimes—when statistics show that 80 percent will commit another crime if incarcerated.

We need to change the focus from punishment to creating life change through evidence-based treatment. Let’s look at what really works and what doesn’t when we create systems to address youth crime.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.


  1. I noticed you failed to address Hoover’s warning regarding the impact that the undermining of traditions and customs can have on young people. This is not surprising, as we today live in a post 60’s, liberalized culture that freely mocks the notion of the very existence of American values (i.e. customs and traditions).

    Examine any native population and the impact its customs and values have on guiding the young towards stability and success is obvious and undeniable. This is true even if the peoples’ commonly-held beliefs—the glue that holds the culture together, are improbable or downright false. That a modern scientist might scoff at the idea that volcanoes have spiritual powers cannot change the fact that that belief, along with a deep loyalty to the ruling elite, provided centuries of young Hawaiians with something to believe in, a course of action to follow, and a life of spiritual comfort and tribal stability.

    Compare that to what we today offer our young people: a handful of dull, sanitized, politically-correct heroes (MLK, Obama, Cesar Chavez), a profound disrespect for the Christianity fundamental to this nation’s birth, the moronic belief that young people know what’s best for themselves, and next to nothing in terms of guidance or expectations. Instead, young Americans are today raised to feel more guilt than any Catholic ever imagined: guilt for overwhelming the Native American peoples, for slavery, waging war, industrial success, outperforming the Third World, polluting the air, guilt for, well, you name it. The only ones spared the guilt are those raised to see themselves as victims, and our juvenile halls and prisons are full of them.

    With one exception this culture provides no safety net for those millions of children born to weak or negligent parents. That exception is the military, and each year tens of thousands of young people enter the military in search of that which this pathetic culture has failed to provide: values, structure, and the offer of inclusion. Somehow these kids, some not particularly smart by scholastic measures, seem to understand something which has gone unnoticed by the idiots in academia, government, and the media, that being that young people blossom when provided structure and guidance.

    Go ahead and preach your sociological crapola. You have the right to your religious beliefs. What you don’t have is the right to deny the rest of us protection from defective thugs born of defective parents. California’s justice system went through the rehabilitation craze once before, forty years ago (thanks to the liberal idiots in academia), and the result was the crime wave that give birth to the Three-strikes law. Lots of people died behind that first stack of theories, studies, and lies. How many more are you willing to sacrifice?

    • >Go ahead and preach your sociological crapola.

      Trolled a response out of me BSM.

      What she’s preaching is right on target.  Let me ask you a personal question BSM… Ever been in the shoes of one of these kids?

      My childhood wasn’t exactly nurturing.  Getting beating by a parent on a meth fueled rage on a regular basis, or parent b just being nuts didn’t really help me out.

      Going to Juvi didn’t help.  Nor did the city shelter.  Arriving to those places, seeing the kids that had been there YEARS, helped solidify those feelings of hopelessness I had.

      What did I have to lose by acting out?  Lose my future?  Already lost (at least by the perspective of my 10 year old mind)

      Sparky’s right on target with FFT (functional family therapy) Kids going down the wrong path can be saved if they have some normalcy somewhere on the branch of their family tree they can turn too.  Unfortunately finding family willing to make the sacrifice to take in “damaged goods” is close to impossible.

      In my case, most of my uncles/cousins already had kids.  Bringing a wild child into the house, even family might have upset the carefully crafted family harmony in those homes.

      Also in my case (where my grandmother has taken me in) has caused a lot of strife within my own family.  One uncle and aunt has been trying to break that relationship for years.  While they don’t come out and say it, my grandmother tells me they’re being jerks because they’re jealous she took me in.  It used to be, she payed a lot of attention to their kids, but when she took me on, she had to devote most of her time to me, and that this aunt/uncle pair have begrudged her for that.

      It’s a lot more complicated of a fix than simply “lock em up and throw away the key”  but in the end, society ended up with a semi-functional, law abiding citizen, who spends his free time responding to comments here.

      I was never really a “defective thugs born of defective parents”. Some kids with defective parents just do crazy ——, like riding down Curtner Av on their Schwinn cruiser with their pants pulled down, because they think it’s funny.  Kids react differently to abuse.  Some become hardened, others just go off the wall.  I fell into the latter for a spell.

      • Just some more for you to chew on BSM..

        Hopefully, in respect to what I wrote above gives you the idea that there is more than just “hardened” children in the Juvi system.

        Question: Do you think a 12 year old kid that mooned some girls while riding his schwinn down the street is “Hardened” and that they should go to juvi?

        Yes, I expect a response to this nonsensical question from you.  My response is already “why would we waste a single taxpayer dollar on that?”

  2. Robert Cortese,

    I read your post and, notwithstanding my condolences for your childhood difficulties, realized that we aren’t talking about the same thing. You’re talking about kids who are depressed, neglected, mischievous, or simply young jerks; I’m talking about criminals, kids who break into homes, participate in armed assault, commit rape, or partake in robbery. I grew up surrounded by kids of both types and I understand the distinction. One type has proven itself fixable (I assume you’re an example of that), while the other, those who seem born to cross the lines that separate the rest of us from predators, continues to defy the best (and even worst) efforts of the so-called experts.

    Some people, even during their childhood, are best locked up. That truism will not change. Humans are simply too complicated for quick fixes, even those championed by political blowhards.

    (As for your experience in juvenile hall, the one you’re so convinced you didn’t deserve, get over it. The world is just as imperfect as was your behavior. Count yourself lucky that some dad didn’t take offense at your display in front of his kids and break your skull.)

  3. Robert Cortese writes, “Trolled a response out of me BSM.”
    Trolled? Is this what discourse in our open society has been reduced to? A person strongly and thoughtfully states his reasoned opinion but if it doesn’t fit the conventional wisdom template du jour he’s called a troll?

    I’ve often found Mr. Cortese’s unique perspective and outside the box thinking to be refreshing and insightful. This topic obviously hits close to home but it’s no excuse for witholding the same thoughtful consideration of ideas that he would expect of others when articulating ideas that are outside the mainstream.
    Outside the box is a good place Robert. Stay out there. Don’t be hurling insults from inside the box of political correctness.

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