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Scared Straight: The Panacea Phenomenon Revisited

NCJ Number
James O. Finckenauer; Patricia W. Gavin; Arild Hovland; Elisabet Storvoll
Date Published
256 pages
This study examines why, in the face of scientific evaluations that show its ineffectiveness, the "Scared Straight" approach to delinquency prevention continues to be used in some jurisdictions.
The first edition by the authors, "Scared Straight! and the Panacea Phenomenon" (originally published in 1982), examined and critiqued the Scared Straight project at New Jersey's Rahway State Prison. Drawing on this case study, the first edition described a pattern of failure that apparently was associated with other efforts to deal with juvenile delinquency. This pattern apparently resulted from a futile but persistent quest for simple remedies or cure-alls. This pattern was referred to as the "panacea phenomenon." The purpose of the current revisit is to update the evidence and to extend the discussion both into the present and overseas, specifically the use of Scared Straight in Norway. The authors first yoke the panacea phenomenon to the concept of myths, defined as "widely accepted beliefs that give meaning to events"; myths are socially cued, whether or not they are verifiable. Myths seem to have the function of offering simple explanations for complex, often otherwise unexplainable issues and problems. This discussion of myth is followed by a review of the original Scared Straight case study. Evidence of Scared Straight's performance since 1982 is then presented. Two of the authors' colleagues then turn to a new case study that offers the latest example of the panacea phenomenon. Modeled on its U.S. precursors, Norway's Ullersmo project operated from 1992 to 1996. The history of this project provides the opportunity for an international comparative analysis of similar efforts to prevent delinquent behavior across cultures. The book concludes that Scared Straight, and other panacea programs like it, survive despite their empirical failure because they are harmonious with certain deeply held mythical beliefs about crime, punishment, and human behavior. The myth that fear of consequences sustains behavioral change persists in criminal justice philosophy and public perception. Readers are challenged to shun strategies that appeal to emotion and popular belief and undertake the challenging search for substantive, effective ways to deter deviant behavior in juveniles. Chapter notes, appended evaluation instruments, and a subject index