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Practice Profile

Juvenile Awareness Programs (Scared Straight)

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:

No Effects - More than one Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types

Practice Description

Practice Goals
Juvenile awareness programs (also referred to as “prison tour” programs or “prison awareness” programs) are deterrence-oriented programs that involve organized visits to adult prison facilities for juvenile delinquents and youth at-risk of becoming delinquent. The most well-known of these programs is Scared Straight. The overall goal of juvenile awareness programs is to deter youth from future criminal behavior.

Target Population
The programs target youth generally less than 18 years of age who are juvenile delinquents (i.e. youth who are officially adjudicated or convicted by a juvenile court) or youth at-risk of becoming delinquent (i.e. youth who have not officially been adjudicated delinquent, but may be in the future).

Practice Theory
Deterrence theory underlies juvenile awareness programs. The foundation of deterrence theory is that if punishment is swift, severe, and certain, it will deter criminal and delinquent behavior (Klenowski, Bell, and Dodson 2010). Through prison tours and aggressive presentations by inmates, youth get to observe the consequences of criminal behavior (i.e. incarceration) and the harsh realities of life inside prison. These practices are intended to “scare” youth into leading a straight life without crime.

Practice Components
The two main components of juvenile awareness programs are tours of prison facilities and presentations by prison inmates. Guided tours through the facilities allow youth to observe first-hand what a prison environment can be like. In some programs, youth are locked inside prison cells or spend some amount of time actually living as a prison inmate.

Presentations by inmates often rely on intimidation, fear, and hostility to attempt to scare youth into living a life without crime. Inmates use a confrontational approach to describe through personal accounts the detrimental and destructive effects of committing crimes. Inmates talk about the wrong choices they made, the crimes they committed that ultimately led to incarceration, and how painful and sometimes dangerous it can be to live in prison. Youth may even be shown photos illustrating the outcomes of violence in prison.

Some juvenile awareness programs feature interactive discussion between inmates and youth called “rap sessions.” Rap sessions can take more of an educational and advice-giving approach rather than a fear-arousal approach. However, most juvenile awareness programs studied to date are based on the confrontational approach.

Additional Information: Negative Effects on Participants
Two meta-analyses (described below in Meta-Analysis Outcomes and Methodology) found that participation in Scared Straight-type programs increases the odds that youth will commit offenses in the future.

Meta-Analysis Outcomes

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No Effects - More than one Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
A review of eight studies by Aos and colleagues (2001) found a small negative effect size (d=0.13), meaning that recidivism rates were, on average, higher for participants in Scared Straight-type programs compared to juveniles who went through regular case processing. Synthesizing results across eight studies, Petrosino, Petrosino and Buehler (2004) also found that juvenile awareness program participants had significantly higher reoffending rates compared to nonparticipants. The results showed that the juvenile awareness programs actually increased the odds of offending (OR=1.47). The results suggest that not only are juvenile awareness programs ineffective at deterring youth from committing crime, but the programs increase the odds that youth exposed to them will commit offenses in the future.
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Meta-Analysis Methodology

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Meta-Analysis Snapshot
 Literature Coverage DatesNumber of StudiesNumber of Study Participants
Meta-Analysis 11967 - 198381091
Meta-Analysis 21967 - 19929946

Meta-Analysis 1

Aos and colleagues (2001) set out to evaluate the costs and benefits of certain juvenile and adult criminal justice policies, violence prevention programs, and other efforts to decrease various at-risk behaviors of youth. The authors used meta-analytic techniques to estimate the degree to which a program or policy can be expected to influence the outcome of interest (i.e. criminality).

The review focused on evaluations that measured a program’s effect on criminal behavior. Program evaluations were gathered from a wide variety of sources, including studies that were published in peer-reviewed journals as well as other sources (such as government or private agency reports). Once an evaluation that met the criteria of inclusion was located, four types of information on the program’s effectiveness in reducing crime were recorded: (1) Did the program affect the percent of the population that offended or reoffend? (2) Of those that offended or reoffended, did the program change the average number of offenses? (3) Did the program affect the types of offenses of those that offended or reoffended? (4) Of those that offended or reoffended, did the program change the timing of offenses? Of the four effects, almost all of the evaluations provided information on the first effect. Far fewer evaluations reported information on the second effect, and even fewer reported information on the third effect. Almost none of the evaluations reported information on the fourth effect.

The mean difference effect size was calculated for each program. Adjustments were made to the effect sizes to account for small sample sizes, evaluations of “non-real world” programs, and  the quality of the research design (the quality of each study was rated using the University of Maryland’s five-point scale; only studies that received a rating of ‘3’ or higher on the scale were included in the analysis). Once effect sizes were calculated for each program effect, the individual measures were added together to produce a weighted average effect size for a program or practice area. The inverse variance weight was calculated for each program effect and those weights were used to compute the average. A fixed effects model was used for the analysis.

The search resulted in the inclusion of eight studies of juvenile awareness programs. The eight studies included approximately 1,091 juvenile participants with a mean age of 15. The group of eight studies included published and unpublished evaluations that spanned from 1967 to 1983. No information was provided on the gender and racial/ethnic breakdown of the studies’ samples, or on the location of the programs.

Meta-Analysis 2

Petrosino, Petrosino and Buehler (2004) meta-analyzed the results from nine randomized trials that compared youth who participated in juvenile awareness programs to youth who were assigned to a no-treatment control condition. A comprehensive literature search was conducted to identify published and unpublished studies through November 2003.

To be included, studies had to use random or “seemingly” (i.e. quasi) random procedures (i.e. alternating every other case to one group or odd/even assignment) to assign participants to either the treatment or control groups. Studies were included if they only involved juveniles (i.e. children 17 years of age or younger, or overlapping samples of juveniles and young adults such as ages 13-21). Studies also had to examine interventions that featured as their main component a visit by program participants to a prison facility.  Finally, studies had to include at least one outcome of subsequent offending behavior that could be measured by such indices as arrest, conviction, contact with police, or self-reported offenses.

The nine studies included 946 juveniles or young adults, and were conducted in eight different states across the country, including Michigan, Illinois, Virginia, Texas, New Jersey, California, Kansas, and Mississippi. The studies spanned the years 1967 to 1992. Five of the studies were unpublished and disseminated in government documents or dissertations, while the other four were found in academic journals or book publications. The average age of juvenile participants in each study ranged from 15 to 17. Only one study (conducted in New Jersey) included girls in the sample. The racial composition of study participants was diverse, ranging from 36 percent to 84 percent white (there was no information provided on the racial/ethnic breakdown of non-white youths included in the studies).

The crime outcomes for official measures at the first follow-up period were reported. Each analysis focused on proportion data (i.e. the proportion of each group reoffending). Because the data from the studies mostly reported dichotomous outcome measures of crime, odds ratios and confidence intervals were calculated for each study. The authors assumed both random effects model and fixed effects models for treatment effects across the studies (because the results from each model were very similar, only the mean odds ratio from the random effects model is reported here). Although the initial analysis included nine studies, one study (Finckenauer 1982) was excluded because of randomization problems.

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In the 2001 report by Aos and colleagues, the authors estimated a nominal cost of $51 per participant to run a juvenile awareness program. However, due to the estimated increase in recidivism rates of program participants, the report estimated that taxpayers would lose approximately $6,572 because of increased subsequent criminal justice costs for each participant (these estimates are based on the costs to Washington State taxpayers using dollar values from 2000).
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Evidence-Base (Meta-Analyses Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Meta-Analysis 1
Aos, Steve, Polly Phipps, Robert Barnoski, and Roxanne Lieb. 2001. The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs to Reduce Crime. Olympia, Wash.: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Meta-Analysis 2
Petrosino, Anthony, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, and John Buehler. 2004. “‘Scared Straight’ and Other Juvenile Awareness Programs for Prevention Juvenile Delinquency.” Campbell Systematic Reviews 2.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Klenowski, Paul M., Keith J. Bell, and Kimberly D. Dodson. 2010. “An Empirical Evaluation of Juvenile Awareness Programs in the United States: Can Juveniles be “Scared Straight”?” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 49:254–72.

Petrosino, Anthony, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, and James O. Finckenaur. 2000. “Well-Meaning Programs Can Have Harmful Effects!: Lessons from Experiments in Scared Straight and Other Like Programs.” Crime & Delinquency 46:354–79.
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Practice Snapshot

Age: 11 - 18

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Other, White

Targeted Population: Young Offenders

Settings: Correctional

Practice Type: Specific deterrence

Unit of Analysis: Persons