“Scared Straight” To Juvenile Delinquency – Mary Kowal
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary juvenile delinquency is “a violation of the law committed by a juvenile and not punishable by death or life imprisonment” (1). This definition encompasses a variety of actions and behaviors that are violations of the law and also ultimately affect health. Scared Straight Programs, jail tours, and similar programs bring attempt to scare “at-risk or delinquent children from a life of crime” (2). These programs that focus on deterrence and shock tactics are inherently flawed and are ineffective. A more reasonable and effective approach is implementing a program that addresses the motives and psychology of adolescent delinquents.
How is juvenile delinquency related to health? Violations of the law for youth include alcohol and drug use, use of firearms, and violence. These are actions and behaviors that can have a significant impact on health. From 1998-2008, 12% of violent crimes were committed by juveniles (3). Additionally, in 2008 21% of liquor law arrests involved juveniles along with 18% of sexual offense arrests, 18% of assault arrests, 15% of forcible rape arrests, 11% of drug abuse arrests, and 10% of arrests for murder involved juveniles (3). These numbers only reflect the numbers of teens being caught and arrested. Drugs, alcohol, and violence are a much wider problem. In the 2007 Youth Behavior Risk Survey, it was found that during the past 30 days 26% of teens binge drank and 29% rode with a drive who had been drinking (4). Additionally, 18% of students surveyed had carried a weapon in the 30 days prior to the survey and 35.5% of students had been in a physical fight in the year before the survey (5). The term “juvenile delinquency” readily correlates with teen health because of things like alcohol, drugs, and violence.
Scared Straight began in the 1970s as a program which inmates serving life terms in a New Jersey prison “scared” at risk youth and delinquents from lives of crime.2 The main objective of this program was deterrence by scare and shock tactics. Teens are brought into prisons through schools or parent initiative and then turned over to the prison guards for a “realistic” experience of prison life. Those in favor of the program (and others like it) believe that if teens experience this realistic view of life in prison they will be deterred from crime (2). However, many have published empirical evidence and data showing that Scared Straight and similar programs are ineffective. A 1982 evaluation found that 41% of Scared Straight attendees in New Jersey committed new offenses and only 11% from the control group (who did not attend the program) committed new offenses. Of eight other randomized trials analyzed, only one program was seen to have a positive result, though statistical insignificant. Overall these trials show that the Scared Straight program can actually increase the odds of juvenile delinquency (2). Despite their inefficentiveness, Scared Straight and other similar deterrence programs are still used in cities across the US today.
Critique 1: Negative Labeling
Labeling theory focuses on the formal and informal “application of stigmatization, deviant ‘labels’ or tags by society on some of its members” (6). This theory is widely used in criminology and sociology. Ronald Akers suggests that designating an individual as deviant or delinquent is not always determined by what s/he has done but rather who they are (6). This is problematic for “at-risk” teens who may come from troubled families or live in rough neighborhoods. While they might not be deviants, they may have a greater chance of being labeled as one simply because of circumstance. The symbolic interactionsim theory holds that those “…stigmatized as deviant are likely to take on a deviant self-identity and become more, rather than less deviant than if they had not been so labeled” (6). If the Scared Straight intervention is given to teens who are “at-risk” but not themselves delinquent, this can have the opposite intended effect. The program is showing them that prison is where they are headed and their life prospects are bleak.
Teens also feel powerless to resist labels applied to them by authority figures – teachers, administrators, and police and prison guards. Unable to fend off these labels, teens often integrate these negative labels into their own self-concept (7). With a negative label forced upon the, delinquency might become a self-fulfilling prophecy for teens that go through Scared Straight and similar programs. Although controversial this idea is very possible given that in randomized studies of both delinquents and non-delinquents, the experimental group that received the intervention did worse in follow-up actions (8). Even in less stressful or consequential settings, negative labels can lead to negative results for the subjects. After responding to a race prime question before taking the GRE verbal section, black participants scored worse than those who were not primed with a race label (9). It is reasonable to argue that a label as strong and as negative as “delinquent” or “deviant” may become self-fulfilling for the teens participating in Scared Straight or similar programs.
The negative labeling of teens in the Scared Straight Programs is one of its worst flaws. It harshly and deliberately labels teens as “delinquent” or “deviant” and expects that this will induce a behavior change. Moreover, authority figures and people in power apply these labels. By mentally and emotionally beating teens down with negative labels and stigmatization they may indeed feel they are doomed for a life of crime and substance abuse. Scared Straight offers no other options for them; it only shows them the negative side of who they assumed to become.
Critique 2: Scared Straight Is Likely to Provoke Negative Reactance
According to Jack Brehm’s psychological reactance theory, “people become motivationally aroused by a threat or elimination of a behavioral freedom” (10). They are then compelled to act in a way that restores that freedom. Reactance can occur in two ways: an individual can attempt to restore freedom by actions, or there can be an increase in the perceived attractiveness of the action or behavior being threatened. Likewise, it is also possible for individuals to attempt to regain a sense of control and freedom by exercising alternate freedoms than those specifically threatened (11). Although a freedom is not specifically being taken away by the Scared Straight programs, teens are told bluntly and harshly not to do certain behaviors. They are told it is not worth the prison time and consequences to do drugs, use alcohol, or commit violent crime. Teens may be motivated to restore their threatened freedom by engaging in illegal and harmful activities.
One factor in reactance is the explicitness of the message (9). This means the degree to which the message is clear about its intent. This factor can provoke reactions both ways, but usually tends to increase persuasion. In the case of Scared Straight, the message is very clear and as well as the intent of the message: delinquency will have serious consequences in your adult life and you should stop now or not even start delinquent behaviors. However, despite the clarity, it is possible in this scenario that even explicitness will not decrease reactance. The Scared Straight message is a firm “no” to alcohol, drugs, and violence. Teenagers may not care that the message is straightforward and unconcealed and instead choose to rebel against this threat to freedom regardless.
The second factor in reactance is dominance. This refers to the amount that the message reveals that the messenger can control the recipient (9). The greater the perceived dominance by the messenger, the greater the level of reactance will be in theory. Again the ideas of power and authority come into play. Scared Straight puts teens in a vulnerable position by showing then a realistic prison experience among prison guards and inmates. In interviews with participants done by James Finckenauer, they reported that the inmates and guards yelled, scared the participants “to death,” and that they were pushed and shoved (8). This shows the subordinate position of the teenagers in the intervention. Because of this decreased role and perhaps feeling of helplessness, teens may be motivated to act in a way that increases their sense of control and also protect their “freedoms.”
The last factor on reactance is the idea of reason. This is the idea that a justification is offered in support of the claim (9). The more reason given, the less reactance is the theory. A the time that Scared Straight began, the only types of prison visiting programs were for college students, and for educational purposes. The Scared Straight program had an entirely different agenda in mind (8). This program was and is about the shock value experience of prison life. As described in Finckenauer’s research, there is no education in the Scared Straight tours. Teenagers are given an experience, not a justification. A program so harsh with no lead up or follow up discussion can leave participants feeling angry or rebellious. Anecdotal evidence shows that many participants did not see how this program applied to them. For these reason, reactance to such tours and programs can be quite high.
Critique 3: Ignoring Motives and Circumstances
The final critique of Scared Straight and similar programs is that they focus on the outcome and not the motives. The programs solely aim to stop juvenile delinquency and scare teens out of illegal actions. However, there is a complex mix of motives and circumstances that lead teens to delinquency. The United Nations 2003 World Youth Report on Juvenile Delinquency notes that many programs to prevent youth crime and illegal activity are poor equipped to address these issues, or do not address them at all (12). Programs like Scared Straight fit into the category perfectly – there is no mention of the reasons behind of delinquency.
Families are a large factor in juvenile delinquency. Youth at risk for becoming delinquent are often raised and living in difficult circumstances. Parent alcoholism, poverty, lack of basic needs, broken families, and abusive home life are just a few of the factors influencing juvenile delinquency (12). Teens learn how to live and interact with society by observing family (13). Family environments can teach teens the wrong messages about interacting in society and what is acceptable behavior. Divorce is one sub factor that can promote an unhealthy family situation and teach dysfunctional behaviors to juveniles because of the lack of stability and concordance. Scared Straight is not a supportive environment in which to learn the “right” behaviors.
Socioeconomic status also plays a role in juvenile delinquency. Some argue that “antisocial behaviors have become entrenched norms within chronically impoverished inner-city environments, so that delinquency and criminality are now endemic facts of life” (13). Teens may feel as though they cannot change their circumstances, particularly if they see their families and neighbors in poor situations. Consumer standards and media pressure push teens to desire a lifestyle that is beyond their means (12). Those who feel that traditional and legal means of making income and advancement will not be successful to them turn to other activities like violent crime and drug dealing. Scared Straight and similar programs do nothing to address the motivations and desires of teens that may be precipitating their illegal and destructive behavior.
Finally, educational experiences factor into juvenile delinquency. Education is influential because it can “shape many youths’ sense of opportunity and self-worth” (13). If teens believe that their educational experience will help them excel, they are less prone to turning to illegal activities to earn money and freedom. However, “academic achievement is considered to be one of the principal stepping-stones toward success in American society” (13). Many teens do not have the opportunity for the same level of education as is required to succeed. Family and socioeconomic factors, as mentioned above, can also contribute to low educational achievement and poor encouragement from educators. Those who drop out of high school and have bad academic performance have higher incidence of delinquency (13).
Just from the examples of family, socioeconomic status, and education it is possible to see how programs such as Scared Straight effectively ignore the root causes of juvenile crime, alcohol use, and drug use.
The proposed intervention does not focus simply on juvenile delinquency, crime and violence, and drug and alcohol use, but is more holistic in its approach to teenage problems and the causes of delinquency. Taking a broad approach to this topic can keep teens health both physically and mentally. The proposal is a based around a series of weekly workshop-style classes throughout junior and senior high school. It is important to begin an intervention early when most teens are not yet delinquent or experimenting with drugs and alcohol. The three overall goals are for teens to increased their decision-making skills and self-control, expand their knowledge of alcohol, drugs, and violence, and to give them concrete skills to use in everyday life.
Classes would be built into the normal weekly schedule for the students in participating schools. While this approach may be effective in a variety of settings, it might be most cost-effective in schools with a large number “at-risk” students. The intervention would be a universal program, meaning that all teens will attend this class regardless of “risk” status. It would be ideal to maintain the same instructor/facilitator as the students moved up in grade levels as this would provide continuity and stability. In addition, the classes would not be a complete top-down learning environment. It should be a non-threatening time for students to hear the instructor, each other, and themselves. At the beginning of the semester the instructor would review the goals of the class (see above) and ask for suggestions for specific workshops and conversation topics. Issues covered in each grade should be appropriate to that level and that stage of development and life.
The goal to increase decision-making skills and self-control can involve lessons, discussion, and practicing. Decisions should range from drugs and alcohol to decisions about life and school work. Some focal points can be narrowing down the real issues, listing one’s priorities, deciding who their decisions will affect, and attempt to project how one will feel at various points in the future from a decision (14). This can empower teens and pre-teens about decisions in their life.
The second goal is to expand knowledge of alcohol, drugs, violence, and crime and also the effects of these. Again these sessions should be a mix of instruction and discussion. Lessons about these topics should come from the instructor, but also the teens themselves. Groups should present on different topics regarding these actions and behaviors and their negative consequences. Facilitated discussions are also appropriate for these topics. This should be a time for confidential and candid discussion among the teens. Discussion topics can include issues related to drug and alcohol use, crime, violence, stereotypes, self-image, methods for quitting substances, and how these issues have touched their lives.
The final goal of this intervention is to give the teens tangible life skills. In addition to decision-making and self-control, there are other important life skills that can impact juvenile delinquency. Workshops can touch on topics to empower teens and give them a sense of control and hope for their future. Issues like study skills, essay writing, finding a part-time job, applying for college and financial aid, and how to cope with stress and peer pressure.
Defense 1: Avoids Negative Labeling and Supports Group Change
The universal approach to this intervention – having all students required to attend these classes – allows for the elimination of negative labeling and supports group change, unlike the Scared Straight programs.
As mentioned previously, there are detrimental effects to negative labeling, namely it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The universal approach of this intervention does not allow for negative labeling based on who participates, like the Scared Straight and similar programs. All teens are put in the same boat, receiving the same intervention and support equally. No one is labeled or seen as a delinquent. In fact, teens who go through this intervention can actually be labeled positively – as Resistors, as Successes, as Role Models. The attitude in the class should be one of empowerment and success – that these teens are going places. If other teachers at the school acknowledge this program and its goals, they too can be a part of the positive labeling of their students.
It is also important that the intervention is received among peers. The social network theory is a group-level model that says that behavior is determined by one’s social network. The implications are that the intervention should be delivered at the group level and if you can deliver it to the most connected person, you can influence the most people (9). This effect is shown by the Harvard smoking cessation study that diagrammed participants smoking cessation and their social connections. The diagrams showed how non-smokers and smokers clustered and how the relations change as people quit (15). This same concept can be loosely applied to this intervention. Since all the students in the school get the same intervention, you are likely to hit the key students who have major social connections. If the intervention is positive for them, they can influence a large group. The non-delinquents can potentially have an effect on the delinquents for the better. The idea of the social network theory is that imparting change is easier done on a group-level.
Defense 2: Gives Teens a Sense of Control
The proposed intervention gives teens both real control and a heightened illusion of control in their lives. This is an important counterpoint to the reactance that many juveniles may face when participating in the Scared Straight program.
The program gives the participants real control. They are encouraged to help select workshop topics, and to give presentations. Even facilitated discussion with the instructor posing questions and making suggestions, can make teens fee in control of he situation and avoid reactance (16). They are also given skills that allow them to better manage in life and school such as study habits and writing skills. These factors, combined with decision-making skills, can lead to teens making the decision not to use drugs and alcohol or to commit a crime. They have the knowledge and the tools to control part of their lives.
The factor also falls into line with the Illusion of Control Theory. This theory states that skill-related factors give people an expectancy of success that is “inappropriately higher than the objective probability would warrant” (17). Though theory this sounds negative, it does not have to be. Even if the participants are delinquent or have many risk factors for delinquency, they can be under the illusion of control. Perhaps odds are against them in terms of doing drugs, using alcohol, and committing violent acts. However, this program wants to instill the idea that they can in fact control their lives. Thinking about and practicing decision-making, having group discussions, and improving self-control all can create the illusion that these teens have the ability to control some aspects of their lives. By giving them this illusion of control, even when circumstances and statistics say they will fail, teens can take actual control and make the choice not to do illegal activities.
Defense 3: Addresses the motivations and circumstances
This proposed intervention has better chances of success because it addresses the motivations for juvenile delinquency and the factors that are behind it. The Juvenile Justice Panel’s report on the Interagency Panel on Juvenile Justice highlights successful crime-reduction programs in many countries that focus on the causal factors for juvenile delinquency: unstable home situations, school drop-out rates, skills training, and education (18). This intervention also targets the three critical factors in delinquency that the Scared Straight programs ignore: families, socioeconomic status, and education.
The intervention does not specifically address the role of broken families in juvenile delinquency, but it becomes a support system for the participants. The instructor will in theory stay with the same class of students as they complete the program. Having such a constant presence and mentor in their lives will provide teens with a sense of support and encouragement that they might not be receiving at home, as well as a positive role model. The classroom can also been seen a safe place for learning, expression, and conversation.
The proposed intervention also touches on the idea that socioeconomic status and education play a role in delinquency, as mentioned above. While nothing can change the circumstances in which the teens grew up, this program will allow them to see a successful future for themselves. After completion of the program, teens will have tools, skills, and resources to overcome obstacles they have in their lives. Learning to search for a part time job, to apply for college and financial aid, and to write a good essay gives teens tangible skills they can use to improve their lives. These skills will hopefully give teens another way to achieve their goals instead of delinquency.
When looking at the issue teen health in the United States, one must also look at the issue of juvenile delinquency including alcohol, drugs, and violence. The Scared Straight program and other like it attempt to resolve the issue of juvenile delinquency through deterrence and scare tactics. However, empirical evidence shows these programs are not working and actually increase delinquency. A better approach is a comprehensive intervention that targets all teens, avoids negative labeling, gives teens a sense of control, and addresses the root causes for juvenile delinquency.
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