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It seems obvious to many people that if the consequences of an activity are sufficiently scary people will naturally avoid the activity. If the consequences of criminal activity are frequent death, injury or incarceration then that will be deterrent. Making children aware of those consequences and scaring them about the likely outcome of criminal behaviour will, surely, add the their motivation to avoid criminality.

So several community activists have put this into practice by designing programmes for local children that show them just how bad the consequences are with the explicit intention of "scaring them straight". One intervention is described like this:

Mr. Walker, 45, a coach with the Berkeley Cougars Youth Football and Cheerleading Association, part of a national league, put together a program “to scare kids straight” by showing them what happens to victims after the fatal gunshots or stab wounds.

Working with an Oakland funeral home, he takes youngsters to local graveyards and mortuaries, offering them an intimate look at how bullet-ridden corpses are taken from crime scenes to cold storage, then patched together for viewing before cremation or burial.

This is from a story in the New York Times. and The Oakland Tribune.

The original "scared straight" idea seems to have come from a programme run by inmates of Rahway State Prison in New Jersey. This programme has been the subject of two TV documentaries. The producer is quoted (here, but paywalled):

I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said: 'I was a juvenile delinquent and when I saw this, I stopped, and changed.'

So this seems like an obvious idea that works: deliberately scare people by showing them the possible consequences of their actions and deter them from crime.

But the simple question is: do these schemes work? That is, can we show that the people exposed to them are less likely to commit crimes than those who are not exposed to the schemes?

PS I do have a view on the evidence, but I want to hold back for now to see whether broader evidence emerges from other's research.

Related question: Do scare tactics in advertising succeed in reducing the number of people who smoke or take illegal drugs?

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    I think this needs to focus on a specific scheme, program, or tactic. The question you are currently asking is to broad. Showing that a certian tactic does not does not mean that no tactics in this category do. Similarly showing one or several do does not mean that all work. – Chad Jan 26 '12 at 14:27
  • @Chad I'm trying to get to a general answer on this because I think there will be enough data to judge the general proposition about the actual effect of scare-based strategy. I think that we can't judge your point until we see some answers. – matt_black Jan 26 '12 at 17:02
  • Voting to close as not constructive. – Chad Jan 26 '12 at 17:11
  • @Chad Because I disagree with you, or for a better reason? – matt_black Jan 26 '12 at 17:21
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    @matt_black I would guess because he thinks your question is too broad, and you declined to fix :-) – Sklivvz Jan 26 '12 at 20:35
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According to this meta review the answer is a big, resounding no. Actually – it increases criminality.

  • Petrosino and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis review of Scared Straight programs with the most rigorous methodological standards to date.
  • Meta-analysis results show the scared straight-type intervention increases the odds of offending by between 1.6 and 1.7 to 1 compared to a no-treatment control group. These findings lead the researchers to conclude that participating in the Scared Straight program actually correlates with an increase in re- offending compared to a control group of youth who received no intervention at all.1
  • Other reviews of the research find deterrence-oriented programs ineffective in preventing crime (Lipsey, 1992; Sherman et al., 1997).

source

Citation from the meta-analysis:

1 A meta-analysis of prevalence rates indicates that the intervention on average is more harmful to juveniles than doing nothing. The authors conclude that governments should institute rigorous programs of research to ensure that well-intentioned treatments do not cause harm to the citizens they pledge to protect.

See also the Cochrane Review page.

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    The motto "what could possibly go wrong?" of Slashdottian memory seems to apply :-) – Sklivvz Jan 26 '12 at 20:50
  • The questions asks about "deliberately scare people by showing them the possible consequences of their actions and deter them from crime." This study involved showing them the punishment for violating the law, which is an indirect consequence. The claims above are about programs that show the consequences to the victims rather than the offenders. – Chad Jan 30 '12 at 14:37
  • This adds support to the claim (see the book Lords of Poverty for many examples in the area of foreign aid) that government does more harm than good when trying to enact social change – iconoclast Sep 14 '12 at 18:45

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