'Scared straight' and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency

Programs such as 'Scared Straight' involve organized visits to prison facilities by juvenile delinquents or children at risk for becoming delinquent. The programs are designed to deter participants from future offending by providing firsthand observations of prison life and interaction with adult inmates. This review, which is an update of one published in 2002, includes nine studies that involved 946 teenagers, almost all males. The studies were conducted in different parts of the USA and involved young people of different races whose average age ranged from 15 to 17 years. Results indicate that not only do these programs fail to deter crime, but they actually lead to more offending behavior. The intervention increases the odds of offending by between 1.6 to 1 and 1.7 to 1. Government officials permitting this program need to adopt rigorous evaluation efforts to ensure that they are not causing more harm to the very citizens they pledge to protect.

Authors' conclusions: 

We conclude that programs such as 'Scared Straight' increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to similar youths. Given these results, we cannot recommend this program as a crime prevention strategy. Agencies that permit such programs, therefore, must rigorously evaluate them, to ensure that they do not cause more harm than good to the very citizens they pledge to protect.

Read the full abstract...

'Scared Straight' and other similar programs involve organized visits to prison by juvenile delinquents or children at risk for criminal behavior. Programs are designed to deter participants from future offending through firsthand observation of prison life and interaction with adult inmates. These programs remain in use despite research questioning their effectiveness. This is an update of a 2002 review.


To assess the effects of programs comprising organized visits to prisons by juvenile delinquents (officially adjudicated, that is, convicted by a juvenile court) or pre-delinquents (children in trouble but not officially adjudicated as delinquents), aimed at deterring them from delinquency.

Search strategy: 

To update this review, we searched 22 electronic databases, including CENTRAL, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and Criminal Justice Abstracts, in December 2011. In addition, we searched clinical trials registries, consulted experts, conducted Google Scholar searches, and followed up on all relevant citations.

Selection criteria: 

We included studies that tested programs involving the organized visits of delinquents or children at risk for delinquency to penal institutions such as prisons or reformatives. Studies that had overlapping samples of juvenile and young adults (for example, ages 14 to 20 years) were included. We only considered studies that assigned participants to conditions randomly or quasi-randomly (that is, by odd/even assignment to conditions). Each study had to have a no-treatment control condition and at least one outcome measure of 'post-visit' criminal behavior.

Data collection and analysis: 

The search methods for the original review generated 487 citations, most of which had abstracts. The lead review author screened these citations, determining that 30 were evaluation reports. Two review authors independently examined these citations and agreed that 11 were potential randomized trials. All reports were obtained. Upon inspection of the full-text reports, two review authors independently agreed to exclude two studies, resulting in nine randomized trials. The lead review author extracted data from each of the nine study reports using a specially designed instrument. In cases in which outcome information was missing from the original reports, we made attempts via correspondence to retrieve the data for the analysis from the original investigators. Outcome data were independently checked by a second review author (CTP).

In this review, we report the results of each of the nine trials narratively. We conducted two meta-analyses of seven studies that provided postintervention offending rates using official data. Information from other sources (for example, self-report) was either missing from some studies or critical information was omitted (for example, standard deviations). We examined the immediate post-treatment effects (that is, 'first-effects') by computing odds ratios (OR) for data on proportions of each group reoffending, and assumed both fixed-effect and random-effects models in our analyses.

Main results: 

We have included nine studies in this review. All were part of the original systematic review; no new trials meeting eligibility criteria were identified through our updated searches. The studies were conducted in eight different states of the USA, during the years 1967 to 1992. Nearly 1000 (946) juveniles or young adults of different races participated, almost all males. The average age of the participants in each study ranged from 15 to 17 years.

Meta-analyses of seven studies show the intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing. The OR (fixed-effect) for effects on first post-treatment effect on officially measured criminal behavior indicated a negative program effect (OR 1.68, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.20 to 2.36) and nearly identical regardless of the meta-analytic strategy (random-effects OR 1.72, 95% CI 1.13 to 2.62). Sensitivity analyses (random-effects) showed the findings were robust even when removing one study with an inadequate randomization strategy (OR 1.47, 95% CI 1.03 to 2.11), or when removing one study with high attrition (OR 1.96, 95% CI 1.25 to 3.08), or both (OR 1.68, 95% CI 1.10 to 2.58).