Many governments around the globe have come up with different approaches to rehabilitate children. Often, these measures are started when a child is identified as at risk in an attempt to ensure that they do not engage in crime in the future. The effectiveness of these interventions has been under debate with a majority of scholars stating that they are counterproductive. This essay critiques the scare them straight program that seeks to deal with juvenile delinquency quickly and harshly. The program encourages exposing at risk children to prison through visits where they get a first-hand experience of being in jail. They also interact with the inmates in an attempt to scare them significantly that they stop engaging in illegal activities.
Juvenile delinquency is a common societal concern at this day and age. Maahs and Pratt (2017) define it as the act of a person who is considered legally underage committing a crime or participates in illegal activity. It is critical to note that different countries around the world have differing ages for certain activities. For instance, in the US, children who are 16 years are allowed to drive while in the UK it is 17 while in Tanzania it is 18. Due to these discrepancies, each country follows their statutory age limit to determine whether one is a juvenile delinquent or otherwise. Legally, in the US, states like Georgia, North Carolina and Texas define a juvenile as anyone below the age of 17 while other states put this age limit at 18 years old. It is essential to point out that not all crimes done by children lead to jail time. There are numerous other mechanisms that have been used to rehabilitate the affected children.
Apart from going to juvenile jail, the children are often counselled and even removed from certain environments in an attempt to lower their chances of committing crime in the future. Van der Put, Assink, Gubbels and Van Solinge (2018) note that the scare straight program is one alternative resolution. The program aims to deter the affected child from committing crime in the future. It is prudent to point out that a significant number of children who go through the program are often at risk, and rarely have started committed crime. It can be boldly argued that one of the reasons for this is the fact that at this stage, the chances of the program working are high due to the psychological state of the affected children.
Scaring Them Straight Program
The scare them straight program, as stated, aims to expose juvenile delinquents to the consequences of illegal activity in order to rehabilitate them. It can be argued that there are two main arguments that can be lifted from the stated premise. The first is that at risk delinquents should be treated differently from children who have already been exposed to criminal activity. In this first case, it is essential that the children are corrected and rehabilitated fast in order to change their behavior. On the other hand, the underage individuals who have already been convicted for crimes cannot be rehabilitated by the same method. Secondly, that one of the reasons children commit crime is the fact that they are not fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Therefore, to some extent, the program is also about awareness.
It is essential to note that the program is purely psychological. For example, as De Vries (2017) notes, one of the activities done is taking the at risk children to jail to see what awaits them if they continue to misbehave and engage in crime. The children are not only able to see how the lives of the inmates have been affected but also how their own lives will be affected if they are arrested. To some extent, it puts into context the consequences of their actions. The children are also often scared straight by being introduced to tough policemen and women who tell them about the arrests they have made and why the delinquents will also end up in jail if they do not change their behaviors.
As stated, the scared straight program aims at dealing with juvenile delinquency quickly and harshly in order to stop illegal acts among children. Van der Put, Boekhout, Stams, Hoeve and Assink (2021) note that there have been studies that have tried to prove that psychological concerns are the main attributor of juvenile delinquency. For instance, issues of intelligence have often been associated with crime among children. Cherry, Baltag and Dillon (2016) explain that children who have mental health challenges are not only often cited as at risk, but are also given punitive punishments for their crimes compared to those who are believed to have normal mental health. Legal conviction and sentencing is also based on the psychological fact of whether the child can actually be rehabilitated without being institutionalized or otherwise. It should be pointed out that the additional fact that the children are also viewed through a set of characteristics and personalities makes it difficult to help the affected individuals.
Critically, the scared straight program is also perceived to use psychological evidence to shape the behavior of the affected children. It can be argued that when these individuals are still at risk, showing them the error of their ways can help them choose a different path. The exposure to the consequences of certain actions can help the affected see their future and this is expected to shape their psychological understanding of crime and the consequences of the same. Paretta (2018) explains that the program has not been as effective among children who have already been convicted of crimes in the past. Again, this has been tied to the fact that psychologically, the latter have already experienced the harsh realities of their actions, therefore, cannot be scared (literally).
The first critique of the program is that it does not work due to the fact that it was opposite psychological effect on the children. As mentioned, the program is expected to scare the children due to the fact that the life they are shows, that of inmates in jail, is expected to be worse than the life they are currently living. Maahs and Pratt (2017) explain that crime rates are higher among juveniles who live in low income neighborhoods. In order to further understand the relation one has to also note why the delinquents engage in criminal activity. Cornell (2017) explains that the number reason why children engage in crime is poverty. A majority of the children often come from low income families living in tough neighborhoods and have to engage in something extra in order to cater for their needs.
Critically, some of the children are the head of their families due to absent or unable parents. Therefore, the fact that the program aims to show the children a harsh side of life would not work due to the fact that they have immediate needs they have to take care of. Cornell (2017) notes that there is also a significant relationship between juveniles and lack of a parental figure in their lives. Some of the children have also been in the system for a significant amount of time and do not have a structured family. It can be argued that all these elements contribute to the psychological state of the children. Therefore, many have already been psychologically tortured to be affected by the sight of jail and inmates.
The first critique focuses on the fact that the scare them straight program relies fully on taking children to jail to interact with inmates and learn the harsh realities of participating in criminal activity. Paretta (2018) notes that there is more to the program than this as it also includes counseling and helping the children further rehabilitate after the prison visits. Despite this, one can still argue that scaring them straight offers a keener look into how criminals are treated while in prison. Paretta (2018) argues that there are numerous things that affect the child’s psychology when they go for such a prison visit. The first is that the get a first look into how lack of freedom looks and feels like. Whereas some juveniles are scared when they see such, others are not as their situations are worse off. Due to this, it can be argued that although prison intervention programs such as scare them straight are important, they can be made better through inclusion of other activities that elevate the lives of the affected children. The fact that the children are able to speak with the inmates also makes the whole program more credible as they get first-hand information.
It is essential to note that the program also rehabilitates the inmates that are in prison due to their interaction with children. A significant number of the inmates get pride off scaring the children as they know it will help them keep off crime. Foucault (2019) notes that although much focus has been put on how the program affects children, it also affects the adult inmates and enhances their rehabilitation. This affirms how the program affects individuals at a psychological level.
The psychological attributes associated with the scare them straight program can be counterproductive. Arguably, the program is counterproductive due to the fact that it has been proven to increase delinquency. Maahs and Pratt (2017) reiterate that the situation many delinquents are in at home is worse off than prison, therefore, scaring them with prison does not work. In this critique, one can argue that social realities have to be considered when thinking of improving the program. Critically, it is important to state that ensuring juvenile delinquent interventions programs work involves also considering their social realities. Paretta (2018) argues that the program’s objective is to show the children that there are worse conditions that they might find themselves in that they have not thought about. It is the generic nature of the program that has been criticized over the years, however.
Debatably, the impact of scare them straight should not be ignored. Maahs and Pratt (2017) confirm that there are some people who have greatly benefitted from the program. However, the number of people it has not helped is more, and continues to grow yearly. Further, it can be argued that the confrontation approach the program uses in a bid to quickly and harshly deal with juvenile delinquency also proves to the children that this is the only way to resolve issues. Therefore, as Maahs and Pratt (2017) explain, they tend to psychologically believe that they have to be as confrontational in their everyday lives. This contributes heavily to their chances of committing crime and goes against the aim of the program. The role of the parents in rehabilitating such juveniles should also be reconsidered.
In conclusion, whereas the aim of scare them off program is noble, the intervention is not working. It can be argued that interventions that aim at psychologically torturing children do more harm than good. One advantage of the program is that it presents real time consequences of crime that the children can learn from through interaction with inmates. Secondly, it shows the children that there are adults who are concerned for their wellbeing and will put in some level of effort to ensure that they are rehabilitated. Critically, however, the program has failed to work due to the fact that it ignores the social realities of a significant number of the children. Often, the situation the children find themselves in at home is worse off than juvenile detention. It is agreeable that juvenile intervention programs should work fast in order to enhance rehabilitation. However, for the scare them straight program, a lot still has to be done for the intervention to be as effective as desired.
Cherry, L. A., Baltag, V., & Dillon, E. M. (2016). International handbook on adolescent health and development: The public health response. New York, NY: Springer.
Cornell, G. D. (2017). School violence: Fears versus facts. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis
De Vries, H. (2017). An integrated approach for understanding health behavior: The I-Change Model as an example. Psychology and Behavioral Science International Journal, 2(2), 1–6.
Foucault, M. (2019). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Penguin Books Limited
Maahs, J., & Pratt, C. T. (2017). “I hate these little turds!”: Science, entertainment, and the enduring popularity of scared straight programs. Deviant Behavior, 38(1), 47-60.
Paretta, T. L. (2018). The impact of public policy decisions on juvenile recidivism in the United States: A retrospective examination. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 13(1), 137-146.
Van der Put, C. E., Assink, M., Gubbels, J., & Van Solinge, N. F. B. (2018). Identifying effective components of child maltreatment interventions: a meta-analysis. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 21(2), 171–202.
Van der Put, C. E., Boekhout, N. F., Stams, G. J., Hoeve, M., & Assink M. (2021). Effects of awareness programs on juvenile delinquency: A three-level meta-analysis. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 65(1), 68-91.