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Delta Bail | The Truth Behind Scared Straight Programs and Juvenile Offender Reform

Scared Straight Programs and juvenile reform alternatives in Dallas County

Imagine this: A young teenager living on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, comes from a socio-economic background that puts him at a disadvantage. He often gets into fights at school over seemingly trivial things like another student looking at him or perhaps making fun of his clothing. This then leads to disciplinary actions that result in repetitive suspension until it becomes too much for the school to handle, forcing them to expel him.

Now, the teenager is outside of the classroom and loses access to school-provided resources like education, coping mechanisms, and adequate nutrition. With no institution to occupy his time, he turns to more delinquent activities that can result in minor offenses or perhaps even violent crimes. 

What does the family do in a situation like this? On the one hand, they want to protect their child from the self-destructive behavior he’s exhibiting and find another school that will take him. On the other hand, they don’t want to encourage similar behavior to happen without sufficient disciplinary actions that could potentially alter this offensive behavior.

Enter the Scared Straight programs, which launched in the 1970s and made a name for themselves in television programs as entertainment for viewers and warnings for other children committing juvenile offenses. 

What is a Scared Straight Program?

In theory, these programs probably sound like a decent idea; it’s a program meant to reform children and teach them right from wrong in a way they’ll understand through what psychologists call a concept of vicarious deterrence. What that means is this program is meant to vigorously enforce children to avoid negative behavior by experiencing what happened to others that performed similar behavior.

So, in effect, scaring children like the proposed boy from the outskirts of Dallas into stopping their delinquent actions is the goal. The program works on the basis that fear alone will be strong enough to alter his behavior and put him onto the path of the straight and narrow, never to step out of line again after seeing the real, lasting consequences of criminal actions.

The problem with that is children tend to think in the present and have trouble realistically picturing the future, according to researchers. Another challenge is that children tend to be impulsive and have poor decision-making skills because of their age and immaturity— challenges that they can’t necessarily control through fear-mongering tactics. 

It’s also important to consider that many of the underlying factors contributing to juvenile delinquency are systemic issues out of a child’s control—like child poverty, socioeconomic disadvantages, peer pressure, lack of access to adequate education, substance abuse, negligent parents, and more. 

Delinquent behavior “is the result of a complex interplay of individual biological and genetic factors and environmental factors, starting during fetal development and continuing throughout life,” according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Thus, both biology and environment influence behavior.

So, from a policy standpoint, the dilemma is how to address the issue of problematic behavior while still nurturing the youth. This is precisely why “get tough” programs like Scared Straight were developed, and eventually commercialized as television entertainment.

The question is, do these programs actually work?

Are Scared Straight Programs Effective for Juvenile Offenders?

Research shows Scared Straight programs have actually proved to be counterproductive to juvenile offender reform. Now, that might be shocking to the average Joe, but here’s why it’s an ineffective strategy to positively alter a youth’s behavior:

  1. Kids don’t react the same way as adults, so creating a program that mimics the experience of adults who’ve committed crimes isn’t effective.
  2. Children who tend to have poor decision-making skills, impulsivity, immaturity, anger problems, and substance abuse issues do not respond to programs designed to further anger or frighten them.
  3. There is no evidence that deterrence programs such as these effectively reduce the future criminal activities of the offender participants, according to the National Institute of Justice.
  4. Juveniles participating in Scared Straight programs are more likely to commit more crimes than non-participants, according to a 2013 study by The Campbell Collaboration.
  5. Scared Straight programs rely on a unilateral structure, in which actions are taken based on one-sided beliefs, such as an aggressive “in you face” approach, without consideration for others and mutual collaboration to reform a child’s behavior through flexible strategies to manage frustration and anxiety properly.

Instead of allowing the child to take control over their own deviant behavior and their tendency to act out for attention, Scared Straight programs are meant to show the child “who’s boss,” and takes that level of control away from them. As a result, they feel helpless and out of control—like nothing they do will ever please an authority figure, so why bother trying?

So, if Scared Straight programs don’t work, then what approaches to juvenile offender reform do?

The Future of Juvenile Offender Reform

As an alternative to the ineffective Scared Straight programs, researchers and psychologists recommend the therapeutic approach like  Functional Family Therapy, an evidence-based program that has been shown to reduce crime rates and recidivism in juvenile offenders, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Therapy is all the rave at this time in U.S. history. This is the era of mental health awareness, due to the rise of psychologists. In fact, more people are willing to get help, but not everyone has the same access or opportunities, especially when it comes to financial status, according to research findings from Jama Network. And right now, children’s mental health is on the decline with more emergency visits and deviant behavior, according to the American Psychological Association.

In this day and age, we have all the technology and resources at our fingertips, ready to be dispensed. Now, it’s about time we increase access to them.

Delta Bail Bonds– Dallas and McKinney, TX

If your child hasn’t responded well to certain disciplinary measures, speak with a child therapist to discuss alternatives. In the meantime, should your child become an adult and find themselves in legal trouble, give us a call and we’ll do what it takes to get a speedy jail release so your kid can get back on their feet. 

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