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Scared Straight! and the Panacea Phenomenon

NCJ Number
J O Finckenauer
Date Published
270 pages
The creation, film documentation, and mounting popularity of the Rahway State Prison Juvenile Awareness Project are reviewed. The 'scared straight' approach and the public's desire for a solution to delinquency are discussed in view of the author's study of program effects with 46 juveniles.
'Scared Straight,' the title of the documentary film on New Jersey's Rahway State Prison project, has become the label for numerous similar programs. The 'scared straight' approach involves exposing juvenile delinquents to the real experiences of prison inmates so that the shock of reality will create a behavior and attitude change. The approach, however, appears to be one of a series of failed attempts to find panaceas for juvenile crime prevention. This study involved interviews with a key inmate in the development of Rahway's program and with corrections and media personnel. It presents a description of the juvenile awareness program as it was conceived and developed by Rahway lifers and of how the project came to the attention of the filmmakers, was filmed, and gained national renown. The misrepresentation of some of the facts by the film, the solidifying of public opinion in favor of the approach, and the endorsement of the approach by corrections authorities are all discussed in a review of events surrounding the film's success. The juvenile awareness concepts of deterrence and behavior and attitude change were examined in the author's study of the project, begun even before it gained national attention. The study sample of 46 experimentals and 35 controls was obtained with difficulty since agencies operating the programs were reluctant to release names and records. In addition, funds became scarce. According to the author, these situations were presumably created by the juvenile justice system's determination that unfavorable evaluation results should not spoil the 'success.' Study findings indicated, among other things, that the success rate for this type of project falls short of the 80-90 percent touted by supporters and suggested in the film. In fact, for the deterrence variable, controls showed less recidivism than experimentals, and the more seriously delinquent juveniles appeared to be impervious to the approach. Study instruments and an index are provided.