How good are 'scared straight' programs at deterring juvenile crime?

Judge: "Scared Straight is controversial because recent studies show that it achieves only mixed results as a deterrence factor"


By Wendy Holdren
​The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va.

BECKLEY, W. Va. — Scared Straight programs, established in the 1970s, are used throughout the U.S. as a means of deterring juvenile crime by taking selected juveniles to an adult jail, where youth experience the harsh realities of prison life.

"Scared Straight is controversial because recent studies show that it achieves only mixed results as a deterrence factor," Judge Kirkpatrick said. "However, I believe that the project can be very useful as long as care is taken to ensure that the right kids are accepted into the program."

Scared Straight was established in Raleigh County in 2012, by Twila Cooper, who served as its director and administrator until recently, when she relocated to Cincinnati to take care of family members. 

Now, Raleigh County Sheriff's Deputy Bobby Stump hopes to take over where Cooper left off, and to administer the project for the benefit of local youth. 

"Kudos must go to the authorities at the Southern Regional Jail, who work to make this program function efficiently and safely," Kirkpatrick said.

He said the program is not for the faint of heart, and is best suited for older juveniles "who stand on the treacherous precipice, where the prospect of a life of crime awaits." 

The key is to screen out children who are not a good fit for the regimen, Kirkpatrick said, as the program is sometimes used as a last-ditch effort to treat a juvenile who hasn't responded to other traditional methods.

Referrals to the Scared Straight program come from the Raleigh County Juvenile Probation Office, the Department of Health and Human Resources through Youth Services, and guidance counselors from schools. 

Juvenile Drug Court plans to refer children to Scared Straight when that court becomes functional, and parents can also request that their child participate in the program.

• • • 

Scared Straight is specifically geared for older children, from 12- to 18-year-olds. A full assessment and intake of the prospective child must be undertaken to weed out those juveniles who would not benefit from the program. 

"I must stress that this is an entirely voluntary project," Kirkpatrick said. "No child would be forced to participate." 

The custodial parent or guardian of the child must sign a waiver on behalf of the child, which Kirkpatrick describes as "one of the most unusual and daunting waivers you will ever see."

He said it contains a clause to the effect that the parent is fully aware that his or her child may be exposed to explicit language, graphic photos, nudity, mechanical restraints and the exposure to mace or pepper spray.

The parent is required to transport the child to the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver on the specified day. Initial reactions of the children are varied, depending on the personality of each individual child. 

"Some teens come in with a lot of brag and swag," Kirkpatrick observed. "But usually, they don't go out that way."

He said a few children will laugh and joke to deflect their nervousness, but most of the children are understandably apprehensive, anxious and sometimes even terrified.

• • • 

Upon arrival at the jail, a head count is taken in the jail lobby, and officers confiscate any cell phones and personal items that could possibly be used as a weapon, such as keys or a scarf. 

Each juvenile will don blue scrubs donated to the program by Raleigh General Hospital, which Kirkpatrick said are utilized to differentiate the kids from regular jail inmates, who wear orange garb. 

Assigned correctional officers tend to the children and are always present for safety purposes. Direct physical contact between inmate and child is strictly prohibited. 

The jail tour will commence in the booking room, where the children are shown how prisoners are booked into the jail. From there, the children are shown how new prisoners are "de-liced."  

The children are thereafter ushered into the tower to see the jail premises from a guard's perspective, and to have the opportunity to ask questions of correctional officers. Then, officers take the juveniles down a hallway to a designated jail pod.  

"Traversing down the hallway will expose these children to unvarnished prison life, as the kids will be exposed to screaming, cursing, yelling, pounding on cell doors, gestures and catcalls," Kirkpatrick said. 

Selected prisoners, who volunteer to participate in the program, will talk to the children, explaining how their lives went wrong and how they ended up in custody.

"Also, I will speak to the kids myself, either in person or by live video feed from the courtroom and describe, from the court's viewpoint, what generally happens to adult criminal defendants upon their conviction," Kirkpatrick said. 

He discusses briefly the sentencing phase of criminal cases, and the shock and angst experienced by defendants who expect to be placed on home confinement or probation, but are instead sentenced to jail or prison.

Each child will ultimately be locked in a jail cell, with a correctional officer present, and will hear the ominous finality of the clanging of the cell door as it shuts. 

"As Ms. Cooper frequently remarked, 'if kids don't remember anything else from their jail visit, they will certainly never forget the sound of that cell door closing.'"

• • • 

Other aspects of jail life include showing the juveniles the kitchen area, so they can see the food served to the prisoners. They will also be shown weapons confiscated from prisoners by correctional officers.  

"They will see several shanks crafted out of spoons," Kirkpatrick said, but he added the all-time favorite is a bat made out of toilet paper.

He said most children are very moved by the Scared Straight experience.

"About half of them will cry, some will gag or vomit, and a few will even freak out and have to be removed from the program."

At the end of the jail visit, the juveniles are taken to the non-contact visiting room. They are permitted to have a brief visitation session with family members or visitors, as would a regular prisoner. Some children purposely have no visitors, to mirror the facts of life — some prisoners have no one to visit them.

"You may initially believe the Scared Straight Program to be overly harsh or particularly cruel, but before you decide, consider this: I have had to send many 18 to 20-year-old defendants to prison over the years, and they may experience the distaste of prison life for a lengthy term of years. They don't get to go home after just a few hours," Kirkpatrick said. 

"If Scared Straight keeps just a few youngsters from committing crimes and going to jail, it is well worth it."

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