'Scared Straight:' Did The Famous 1978 Program Work? (Not Really...)

Culture | January 10, 2020

Left: Teens in the 'Scared Straight' audience. Right: Memorable participant Ali. Source: YouTube

Starting with 1978’s Scared Straight, the TV special that sent at-risk teenagers to prison with adults in order to freak them out and turn them into respectable citizens, programs that claim to save teens by giving them a taste of prison life have been popping up across America. Every few years there’s a new version of the special and more kids are put through the meat grinder. So it must work, right? No way.

If anything, the at-risk youth who are put through curriculum’s like 1978’s Scared Straight are worse off for having spent time in a facility for adults. Even though there’s plenty of research that proves juveniles pushed through the program are prone to criminal activity, that hasn’t stopped the producers of the series from claiming that they saved lives with their show.

'Scared Straight' Claimed To Save Lives

Source: Golden West Television

America began scaring the F out of kids in 1978 with Scared Straight, a program hosted by Peter Falk. The special brought young people inside the harsh environment of New Jersey's Rahway State Prison where they were verbally accosted by prisoners in order to put them on the straight and narrow. The kids were threatened with physical and sexual violence, all as way to scare them away from a life of crime.

The special premiered on Los Angeles' KTLA Channel 5 on November 2, 1978, and it was a massive hit. Even without a theatrical release the special earned an Academy Award for best feature documentary, and according to the special’s producer-director Arnold Shapiro, it saved a lot of lives. He told The Hollywood Reporter:

You don't make documentaries to get rich. I've got files full of letters from people who say they'd be dead or in prison if they hadn't seen Scared Straight.

In spite of the TV special’s success and the multiple follow ups that came in the ensuing decades there’s little proof that Scared Straight actually worked. In truth, the program may have made the children involved worse.

Many Of The Kids Involved Fell Into A Life Of Crime

Source: Golden West Television

The sad truth of the matter is that just about everyone involved in 1978’s Scared Straight found their way into trouble in one way or another following the events of the program. Angelo Speziale, one of the young people who was put through the program claimed to be on the straight and narrow following his look at life inside prison, but in reality he was just living a double life. Despite saying that the experience changed his life forever he was given 20 years to life in Rahway in 2011 after his DNA connected him to the 1982 rape and murder of a teenage girl who was his next door neighbor at the time.

Multiple Studies Have Shown That The Program Doesn’t Work

Source: Golden West Television

Producers of the show can say that they have files of thank you letters pouring out of their offices, but the truth of the matter is that studies show Scared Straight and programs like it cause far more harm than good. Researchers at the Campbell Collaboration looked at the findings of nine different programs like Scared Straight and found that they tended to boost local crime up to 28 percent rather than bring crime rates down.

Getting granular, the actual students who take part in the program tend to have a higher recidivism rate over juveniles who were in a control group. In 1997 a report was presented to Congress that simply stated that Scared Straight programs don’t work in spite of their popularity.

'Scared Straight' Is Worse Than Doing Nothing

Source: Golden West Television

But what about leaving these children to their own devices? Wouldn’t they be worse off if we just allowed them to grow up naturally, without being scared straight? Not really. Researchers at the Cochran Library found that juveniles who were put through the program were far more at risk to double down on their criminal mischief than their peers who remained on the streets. Criminal justice and education expert Dr. Anthony Petrosino explains:

Kids who were diverted out of the system did much better if they got services versus going through the formal juvenile court process. The kids who got nothing, diverted to go home to their parents with no treatment, even did slightly better than those who went through the formal juvenile court! That's amazing, because then it's a helluva lot cheaper to just send the kid home rather than process them.

'Scared Straight' Persists Because It's Cheap

Source: Golden West Television

So why do we keep sending our children to these nasty programs? It's simply much cheaper, even without federal funding, to send juveniles through through a day of adult prison - especially if the costs are being offset by a production crew - than to place them in an actual therapeutic facility. Dr. Anthony Petrosino says:

There's a lot of interest in a low-cost panacea. Jurisdictions that want [scared straight] aren't getting federal money for it, but it's so cheap to implement that doing it on their own dime isn't discouraging them at all. It also has a "common sense" appeal: A lot of people believe that if you get tougher with kids in particular, but also with adults, that you're going to deter them. The evidence for that is not all that strong, but it fits with these common-sense notions.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Academy Awards | Crime In The 1970s | Reality TV | Scared Straight | TV In The 1970s

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.