‘Scared Straight’ and other programs involve organized visits to prison by juvenile delinquents or children at risk for criminal behavior. Programs are designed to deter participants from future offending through first hand observation of prison life and interaction with adult inmates.
To assess the effects of programs comprising organized visits to prisons by juvenile delinquents (officially adjudicated or convicted by a juvenile court) or pre-delinquents (children in trouble but not officially adjudicated as delinquents), aimed at deterring them from criminal activity.
Searches by the first author in identifying randomized field trials 1945-1993 relevant to criminology were augmented by structured searches of 29 electronic databases, including the Campbell SPECTR database of trials (through 2003) and the Cochrane CCTR (through 2011). Experts in the field were consulted and relevant citations were followed up.
Studies that tested the effects of any program involving the organized visits of juvenile delinquents or children at-risk for delinquency to penal institutions were included. Studies that included overlapping samples of juvenile and young adults (e.g. ages 14-20) were also included. We only considered studies that randomly or quasi-randomly (i.e. alternation) assigned participants to conditions. Each study had to have a no-treatment control condition with at least one outcome measure of “post-visit” criminal behavior.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS
We report narratively on the nine eligible trials. We conducted one meta-analysis of post-intervention offending rates using official data. Information from other sources (e.g. self-report) was either missing from some studies or critical information was omitted (e.g. standard deviations). We examined the immediate post-treatment effects (i.e. ‘first-effects’) by computing Odds Ratios (OR) for data on proportions of each group re-offending, and assumed both fixed and random effects models in our analyses.
The analyses show the intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing. The program effect, whether assuming a fixed or random effects model, was nearly identical and negative in direction, regardless of the meta-analytic strategy.
We conclude that programs like ‘Scared Straight’ are likely to have a harmful effect and increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to the same youths. Given these results, we cannot recommend this program as a crime prevention strategy. Agencies that permit such programs, however, must rigorously evaluate them not only to ensure that they are doing what they purport to do (prevent crime) – but at the very least they do not cause more harm than good to the very citizens they pledge to protect.
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