Scared Straight: does it work?

The TV was playing in the background while my medic crew was eating dinner, and we soon found ourselves sucked into a reality show in which juvenile offenders were given a weekend-long introduction to prison life, in an effort to dissuade them from lives of crime. 

These were not hardcore offenders: their crimes included "lied to parents" and "stole," both of which are common features of many people's young lives. But they had been signed up by their parents as prisoners/reality show participants, so they were dressed in prison scrubs, yelled at, made to exercise, deprived of sleep, given inspirational speeches, then yelled at some more. None of it was much worse than, say, fire academy, but I when I went to fire academy, I was an adult who was there of his own free will, with the promise of a job at the end. 

Some of the kids break down crying as the adult men yell in their faces, and the camera zooms in and lingers on their wet cheeks, their exhaustion and distress. The program has succeeded: they've been broken. Cue the dramatic music and go to commercial. 

"I wonder if those programs really work," I asked. It took about 30 seconds on a phone to find out. 

Not only do they not work, but 1) they're worse than doing nothing, and 2) we've known this for decades. According to the U.S. Justice Department:

A study by Anthony Petrosino and researchers at the Campbell Collaboration analyzed results from nine Scared Straight programs and found that such programs generally increased crime up to 28 percent in the experimental group when compared to a no-treatment control group. 

The Justice Department discourages the use of Scared Straight programs, and in a report on crime prevention programs presented to the U.S. Congress, it placed these interventions in the "does not work" category. This report was released in 1997, nearly twenty years ago. 

According to an article in Psychology Today:

Why do scared straight programs backfire? No one knows for sure, but there are at least two possibilities. First, many of the kids who participate probably were not that inclined to join gangs or commit crimes to start with. Having convicts yell in their faces and tell them about prison rape may make them think, paradoxically, "Joining a gang must be pretty attractive if the authorities are going to such extremes to scare me out of it."

I have another theory. Scared Straight programs might seem to work in the short run, but ultimately they help young people self-identify as criminals. When I finished fire academy, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was go through another fire academy. But once some time passed, I began to think of it as a challenge I had overcome, something to be proud of. More importantly, it bonded me to the other people who had been through the same experience. I was part of the fire department family, a rare group who had emerged from the forge of that experience, transformed and toughened. I belonged.  

In our efforts to scare young people on to a pro-social path, we may be pushing them into criminal behavior they might otherwise have avoided. We are literally creating criminals, destroying human lives. Everyone involved in making that TV show knows it, but hey, reducing young black men to tears is good television. And that is utterly amoral and revolting.