Scared Straight: But It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea

The video of Bibb County, Georgia Judge Verda Colvin was just so . . . Menckian.

Ask anybody, and they’ll tell you why the concept of “scared straight” makes so much sense.  Call it by other names, “tough love,” or as with Colvin’s effort, “Consider the Consequences,” and it still seems like a fabulous idea.  After all, doesn’t it make sense that by scaring at-risk youths that they’re on the road to perdition, they will have an epiphany and get the hell off that road?  Of course it does. It’s common sense.

As Chris Seaton notes at Fault Lines, it’s also wrong.

This serene bastion of enlightenment is great until the fiction is stripped away and you realize the kids in front of Judge Colvin had reached the end of “Consider the Consequences,” the latest flavor of the old “scared straight” program, proven over decades to increase the chance kids will commit a crime.

Those programs proved disastrous, as research shows “scared straight” programs consistently increase the risk of children attending them committing a crime. One study, by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, deemed the “scared straight” approach “the only program we reviewed that actually increases crime.” The Cochrane Review concluded deterrence programs like “scared straight” skyrocketed the chance of creating a juvenile offender by sixty-eight to seventy-one percent.  Still another study found while the programs may achieve temporary deterrence, they create a “desensitizing effect” on participants, as future incarceration seems less threatening.  Even School Resource Officers decried the “scared straight” approach, asserting negative interactions between SROs and children.

I know. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around, because it just seems as if this was such a brilliant idea. Certainly, no one wants at-risk kids to go bad. Certainly, it would be far better to get them to understand the consequences that a future of wrongful behavior holds for them. If we can prevent kids from becoming criminals beforehand, wouldn’t that be far better than punishing them afterward?  Of course it would.

But that doesn’t necessarily translate to ideas that seem good based upon some gut feeling actually achieving the desired result.

So much data exists on the ability of the “scared straight” approach to accomplish exactly the opposite of its goals that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) washed their hands of any involvement in a Baltimore Sun op-ed.  Members of the OJJDP denounced implementation of “scared straight” programs and opined “[the] fact that [Scared Straight] programs are still being touted as effective, despite stark evidence to the contrary is troubling.”

Why, then, does this misguided belief that a failed concept will save the children persist?  Have you met my good friends, Dunning and Kruger?  The problem is not that the concept of “scared straight” doesn’t make sense. It makes enormous sense. It seems as if it’s a very real way of addressing a very disturbing problem.

One problem is that it just doesn’t work.  Another problem is that it not only doesn’t work, but actually makes things worse.  We don’t know this because of an inability to reason, but because empirical analysis proves us wrong despite reason.

Sometimes, it just works out this way, despite the best of intentions and the soundness of the apparent logic.  When that happens, it’s not because we’re being irrational, but because our analysis fails to take into account all factors that influence the outcome.  The reasoning may be sound, but we didn’t know enough, understand enough, to incorporate all the considerations in our reasoning.  It was a good try, but it just didn’t happen.

And that begets the next problem, that people just refuse to accept the empirical proof that an idea that seems so good turns out to suck.

Personally, I also want to express my appreciation for the work Judge Colvin is doing in the Macon County program. If she doesn’t talk straight to some of these kids, nobody will, and they’ll wind up as statistics in a jail somewhere. It might sound nice and liberal, and politically correct, just to push these kids through the system and enable them, but somebody has to be the adult in the room and tell it like it is. For that, I applaud Judge Colvin and the hundreds of other judges, officers, deputies, and mentors who selflessly give of their time and talent to make a difference.

That’s very sweet that he applauds Judge Colvin, because he believes.  And if his claim is true, he’s in a position where his belief is a problem.

As a teenager, I attended one of these programs, having physically threatened one of my teachers, among other violent episodes. I can assure you now, very confidently, that the program I attended did not cause my outbursts of violent behavior, it was their consequence. Just as confidently, I can assure you that after the program I attended, I did not commit any further offenses. In fact, I am now a decorated law enforcement agent, and I mentor young people through the Explorer Scout program. (Emphasis added.)

It requires little discussion to note that his having overcome his violent tendencies as a teen isn’t proof that “scared straight” works, and may well (though this too likely fails to make his radar) explains why he ended up in an occupation where he gets to vent his violent tendencies with the support of the law.  Not exactly the message he meant to deliver, but people who only have the capacity to view the world through the peculiarity of their own perceptions tend to miss a lot.

This isn’t to fault people, like Judge Colvin, for trying to help at-risk youth. Who wouldn’t put on a show to save a kid from a future of misery, to themselves and to those upon whom they inflict it.  Good intentions, for sure.  But neither the preface to the “good intentions” aphorism, nor the slavish adherence to notions that really, really seem as if they should work, changes H.L. Mencken’s admonition.

No matter how deeply you believe in your mad reasoning skillz, it doesn’t mean that it works.  And if it doesn’t, and if it makes things worse, don’t do it, no matter how much sense you think it makes.

27 thoughts on “Scared Straight: But It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea

  1. Frank

    And I just love the people who answer critics by demanding they come up with an alternative that works. Say what? That wasn’t in the job description.

    1. The Real Peterman

      The alternative to doing something that makes things worse: don’t do that something. You’re welcome.

  2. Richard G. Kopf


    As one, I’m here to say that judges–at all levels, and particularly in federal courthouses and even more particularly me–suck at sentencing. Empiricism (the rigorous analysis of data) could inform judges so that they might do better.

    Sadly, however, we value our vaunted discretion –read absolute power driven by nothing but what our respective guts tell us–over the hard work required to read and understand what social scientists like criminologists keep telling us over and over again. We don’t like social scientists, for among other reasons, ’cause they use numbers, and we were never very good at math. Besides, social scientists ain’t lawyers and therefore they know nothing of the magic that we conjure up as the law.

    In short, we, the judges, pledge allegiance to our feelz. All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      Empiricism is like my daughter’s 2006 Prius. Perfect for getting to work. Not so good for racing for pink slips.

      1. Richard G. Kopf


        The fact that you allow your daughter to drive a Prius proves my point, or at least that’s how this hick thinks. All the best.


            1. Richard G. Kopf

              SHG and Keith,

              Just listened to Harry, and his “little boy blue and the man on the moon.” I began to weep uncontrollably at the thought that I “allow” my 42-year-old daughter to drive one of those boxy Scion xbs. Thanks for nothing.

              An aggrieved father. (I would conclude with “all the best,” but feelz too bad.)


  3. DHMCarver

    The comment by the former violent youth/now officer is a classic Little Timmy Story. I have mentioned these once before when commenting at SJ — individual anecdotes that are supposed to illustrate the whole, but in fact do nothing of the sort. One data point does not a conclusion make. Unfortunately, legislators in particular are susceptible to Little Timmy Stories. Many unfortunate pieces of legislation are birthed from Little Timmy Stories.

    1. Wrongway

      The only thing I noticed is how many times you typed “Little Timmy Stories” in 5 sentences..

  4. Dragoness Eclectic

    Once again, thank you and your other commenters for making me less stupid. Was everything I learned in the 1980s a lie? Seriously. I’ve already lost the truths from the 60s and 70s, but dinosaurs are cooler with feathers anyway.

  5. R Rosenbaum

    There’s a word for the continued belief in the effectiveness of these programs: Mumpsimus. Rather than provide a prohibited link, I’ll just say look it up on Wikipedia.

  6. Pingback: The Letter From Hell | Simple Justice

  7. John Rew

    The scared straight idea has always seemed wrong and counter productive to me and most people disagree with me. I think many people simply entertain misconceptions about human behaviour especially children and young adults. Firstly this program says to children that there is a place for violence in educating people. It is different from showing a film or representation of a situation because these young people are actually allowed to be harassed with the blessing of the system. For many young people who have a negative view of authority this will confirm that view . What is the difference between shouting threats in someone’s face and getting someone to do it for you? In either case threats of violence are being used as a legitimate tool by the system. This program would in many cases cause these young people to see the justice system as an extention of the criminal underground with the latter having the last word and being the real power. Basically they are being told that ultimately you will have to answer to your criminal overlords which would make any rational person think “I had better not break the criminal code then”. It is a big mistake to hand power over to criminals especially when it comes to educating our young. We are simply telling them these are the people we rely on to get you to do what we want.

Comments are closed.