Discussions On The Scared Straight Program Essay

, Research Paper

The recent media obsession with the scared straight program, juvenile boot camps and other scare tactics has lead to the question as to whether they actually are beneficial or not in treating adolescent criminal recidivism. On television programs like Maury (Pauvich) the answer to treating the troubled young girls who are brought to the show is boot camp. Those in charge take these girls to prisons, dangerous streets at night and often morgues to make a visual argument as to where they will end up as a result of the path they’ve taken. They also go through a rigorous run with drill sergeants to break down their egos. Of course it only last one day as opposed to any length of time a judge would sentence, but they get a small taste of it. Without surprise, at the end of every program of this nature, all the girls are rehabilitated and promise to go back to school, quit drugs, stealing, prostituting, and stop the abusive behavior.

Adolescent criminal acts, which include but are not limited to murder, rape, armed robbery, violent assault, mugging, arson, vandalism and robbery are a large portion of the crimes represented in the media. Alternative options to throwing these kids in juvenile detention centers is a rehabilitative boot camp where they have no control over even their own bodies or programs similar to scared straight where they see possible consequences to their actions. The importance of the success or failure of these programs is important because right now it is the popular solution. If these programs are going nowhere, time should be invested in creating new ideas and methods to treat these children before they become adults in the prison system.

This paper will address mainly the James Finckenauer study of the Scared Straight program created by the Lifer’s Group in the Rahway State Prison in New Jersey. Many of the sources for the information in this paper referred to the same study by James O. Finckenauer. Few studies have been done on this topic, but many of the references discuss problems and positives of the Finckenauer study.

The Lifers’ Group originally consisted of inmates in the New Jersey Rahway State Prison who were sentenced to twenty-five years or more. The original president and creator of the Lifer’s Group was Richard Rowe (Finckenauer 1982, pg. 67).

The Lifers’ Group was created in part to counteract what these inmates saw as a stereotyped, Hollywood-type image of prisons and convicts held by the general public. This image, they felt stigmatized convicts as immoral and inhuman. In order to dispel what they saw as a false image, the Lifers’ wanted to try to prove that they could be useful and worthwhile people even though locked up in a maximum-security prison. (Finckenauer 1982, pg. 67).

September of 1976 was the first time the program occurred. According to the Lifers’ group own letter to parents of adolescents who took part in the program (copy of form letter on page 80 in Finckenauer’s book), only one person out of over 155 juveniles was taken into custody after their meeting with the Lifers’ Group. A. Petrosino criticized this letter by saying that it wasn’t an actual study with a control group and experimental group (Petrosino 1997, pg. 12). The issue that did not go unnoticed was that “a large number of kids participating in the project had admittedly been neither delinquents nor even predelinquents”(Finckenauer 1982, pg. 79). This lead to the study conducted by Finckenauer of future kids sent to the program by different youth organizations for delinquent behavior. If the kids are not delinquents or will not be delinquents in the future, it is difficult to discover the actual success rate of the program.

In Part three of Finckenauer’s book on the scared straight program, he discussed his study methods. Many of the criticisms of this study were based on his skepticism of the program. L. Sherman when mentioning studies on shock treatment cited the Finckenauer study as biased (Sherman 1997, pg. 8).

The specific goals of the research were to evaluate the psychological and behavioral reactions the juveniles experienced as a direct result of their involvement in the project, the recidivism rate of these juveniles, and the extent to which the initial exposure and the effects therefrom were manifested in the lives of the participants (Finckenauer 1982, pg. 117).

Finckenauer wanted 100 participants, recommended by youth organizations. He planned to have a random experimental group of fifty and a random control group of fifty. After many problems with cooperation from the agencies, Finckenauer’s study consisted of forty-six experimentals and thirty-five controls (Finckenauer 1982, pg. 122). A section of Finckenauer’s book was dedicated to criticisms of his study, in this section, which ranges from pages 123-131; many different people voiced opinions. Judge George Nicola thought the conclusions too “broad” due to the 81 kids in the study as opposed to the 13,600 who have participated in the program (pg. 124). Lieutenant Alan August who was in contact with Finckenauer to help facilitate this study said, “I don’t like the way they did it. The control group did not match up. Some of the teenagers had no records…Finckenauer was here one time in three years. He had his mind made up before he started”(pg. 125). The previous examples were not from professionals, but Finckenauer also included opinions of professionals in his book. The main methodological problem addressed by the various professionals was the issue of randomization. Though not discussing the Finckenauer study, In The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment, Lipton says that “so central is this procedure (randomization) to experimental evaluation methodology that evaluations which do not use it cannot appropriately be called experiments”(Lipton 1975, pg. 12). In Jailhouse Shock Aims to Scare Youths Straight, Hall reports that

Of the experimental group, 27 had arrest records, 19 did not. In the control group, 14 had arrest records, 21 did not. These figures strongly suggest the treatment or experimental group contained more delinquents, proportionately, than did the control group. As social scientists (and people in every walk of life) have long known (Hall 1999, pg. 34).

A letter from the Panel on Research on Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders of the National Academy of Sciences was cited in Finckenauer’s book Scared Straight and the Panacea Phenomenon. It says that they “do not believe that Finckenauer’s study provides a basis for any conclusion about the effectiveness of the Juvenile Awareness Program other than that it will not be easy to find out how effective the program may be”(Finckenauer 1982, pg. 129). The reliability of Finckenauer’s study was criticized, but there weren’t any other comparisons to be made except the letter sent from the Lifers’ Group to the parents which showed a very high success rate.

The importance of discussing Finckenauer’s study is to show that more studies need to be done to discover how accurate this form of rehabilitation and prevention is. Finckenauer’s study shows the difficulty in gathering participants and money to conduct experiments to find the relevance of these programs. Many people were quick to criticize the problems with the experiment, but this can only help future research on these shock treatments.

The main difference in the experiment by Finckenauer and the letter sent to parents by the Lifers’ Group is that of the validity issue. When sending a letter to the parents of delinquent children, anything can happen to the letters. They might not be returned to the prison, the parents may lie, or the children themselves could answer the questions incorrectly. The success of the program should not have been decided on the basis of the letters. One person out of more than 155 returning to a criminal life is too perfect of a result. The actual records of the kids who had prior arrest records should have been followed up on after the program. Also, not all of the children were delinquents to begin with. There is no way that they would decide after leaving the Scared Straight program, to become criminals. Finckenauer tried to make sure all of the kids in his study were delinquent. He had a lot of difficulty with the youth groups and other sources for the funding and extension of this experiment. Although there were many methodological problems with his study, Finckenauer was on the right track.

If programs like these work, they need to be implemented all around the United States (assuming there are willing inmate participants). The in jail shock programs are free because the inmates to not get compensated monetarily for their time. If these programs do work, even a small percentage, why spend money on high dollar treatments that do not get through to the youth today. Maybe after seeing the prisoners in the jail will help make it clear that it is not a place to be. For some kids it is too late, but some of the younger ones could be influenced and scared straight. Hopefully, more cities will have inmates that are trying to have stereotypes abolished. Right now the Lifers’ Group holds meetings every Monday about these children. A maximum of 35 adults (parents, guardians, and concerned citizens) are permitted to attend this discussion. With the majority of adults in the prisons being juvenile offenders, imagine if they were caught early and the program worked.

A possible future research solution should be focused on the kids going through the program now. They should pick a certain program date to start monitoring these kids for at least 10 years after their meeting with the Lifers’. If these kids have criminal records, it should be attached to their files that they’ve completed the Lifers’ program. Any arrest after the program would become part of the file and they would have been a failure with the program. Any of the kids who have nothing added to their criminal record after 10 years could be considered successful. If the kids have no criminal record, a separate file should be made which symbolizes the completion of the program so any adverse or negative effects of the program could be monitored as well. As of now, only the Lifers’ Group has a master list of those who have completed the program. The police files would be better monitors of a success rate for the program.


1. Andrews D., Zinger I., Hoge R., Bonta J., Gendreau P., and F. Cullen. Does correctional treatment work? A Clinically Relevant and Psychologically Informed Meta-analysis. Criminology 369-404: 28(3).

2. Finckenauer J.O. Scared Straight and the Panacea Phenomenon. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.

3. Finckenauer J.O., Gavin P., Hovland A., and Storvoll E. Scared Straight: The Panacea

Phenomenon Revisited. Prospect Heights, Ill. USA: Waveland Press, 1999.

4. Hall, A. Jailhouse Shock Aims to Scare Youths Straight. The Scotsman 1999 Oct 26:12.

5. Lewis R. Scared Straight–California Style: Evaluation of the San Quentin Squires

Program. Criminal Justice and Behavior 1983; 10(2): 209-226.

6. Lipton D., Martinson R, Wilks J. The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment. New

York, NY: Praeger, 1975.

7. Petrosino AJ. ‘What Works?’ Revisited Again: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized

Experiments in Rehabilitation, Deterrence and Delinquency Prevention.

Ann Arbor (MI): Rutgers University, 1997.

8. Petrosino A, Boruch R., Rounding C., McDonald S., Chalmers I. Assembling a Social,

Psychological, Educational and Criminological Trials Register (SPECTR). Evaluation

Research in Education 2000. forthcoming.

9. Sherman L., Gottfredson D., MacKenzie D., Eck J., Reuter P., Bushway S. Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising. A Report to the United States Congress. College Park, MD: University of Maryland, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 1997.


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