The cable network A&E has been running a popular series for six seasons called “Sacred Straight.” It purports to show a forceful way of handling juvenile offenders by taking them to a correctional facility and having inmates intimidate them with threats of what will happen if the kids end up in prison. And of course, the next episode features a sobbing or sobered delinquent declaring he or she will straighten up.
It’s a feel-good for the audience. Such a simple way to straighten out these young miscreants. Only problem, it’s Hollywood nonsense, as Del Elliott, the director of the program on Problem Behavior and Positive Youth Development and the founding director of The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence in the Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS) at the University of Colorado recently pointed out.
Elliott spoke to 500 people at the Blueprints Conference in Denver, Colo., which was organized to provide “information on cost-effective and proven programs that help young people reach their full potential.” In his address, he outlined three crucial steps to effectively curb juvenile offending. Elliott emphatically stated that we must first stop using approaches that do more harm than good.
Elliott specifically cited Scared Straight as an example of an approach that exacerbates a difficult situation. While viewers might consider this “entertainment” and not question the effectiveness of these approaches, researchers do, and the findings are startling. The knowledge that these programs are not only ineffective, but actually increase the likelihood of future offenses goes back more than 10 years, yet they continue to garner support (Petrosino et al, 2002 &2003, DHHS 2001). According to Attorney General Eric Holder, youths who are sent to such programs “are nearly 30% more likely to offend than youths who are not.” Also concerning is the economic data that shows a negative return on investment of $76 for every dollar invested, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Joe Vignati, the national juvenile justice specialist on the executive board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, has called the program a waste of money that “is more likely to create kids who are going to get in trouble.”
The findings of increased offending are so convincing that respected criminologists and officials with the U.S. Department of Justice have asked for years that A&E stop airing the program, but it continues. Swayed by the tearful apology and unaware of the future crimes, the viewers support the expansion of these harmful programs in juvenile-justice departments across the country, while more of their tax dollars are required to address future crime. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s Deputy Director Tara Andrews is concerned that the “good” feel of the program combined with the financial pinch many communities are experiencing may lead more communities to adopt such systems.
Elliott’s third recommendation is to subject programs without an evidence base to the scrutiny of rigorous, peer-reviewed clinical trials to evaluate long-term effectiveness. With the amount of information available on effectiveness, lawmakers and funders should not have to make decisions without the benefit of demonstrated results.
As professionals, it is our mandate to educate those making decisions and the general public so that we do not have to see children in situations that make them more likely to commit crimes for yet a seventh season. It is our role to share the information identifying what works and what is untested. Once those making decisions are armed with this knowledge, supporting “Scared Straight” and similar programs is not simply bad policy, it’s unethical. A&E?
If you are interested in reforming your communities juvenile justice system, please join us at the MST pre-conference during Blueprints. Click here for to register. Or click below for the agenda.