Thursday, March 22, 2012

Student researches effectiveness of 'Scared Straight' programs

Monday, March 26, is the Fourth Annual Student Research Day, an opportunity for Douglas College students to share their research projects with their peers and the larger community. Doug caught up with a few of the participants to learn more about their projects. 

I am
Stacy Clarke, a student in the Child and Youth Care (CYC) program

My project
It’s on the effectiveness of “Scared Straight” programs. I have a background in youth justice and I'm finishing my CYC degree, so when I saw the Beyond Scared Straight TV show I was really curious about whether or not the programs actually work for keeping kids out of jail. So I thought I would conduct a survey to find out what people thought about the effectiveness of these programs.

My method
I put out an online survey on Facebook and asked people to repost it. It went to people’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. I did 33 surveys and three interviews.

I asked respondents questions about their own perspectives on Scared Straight programs, whether or not they had seen the TV show, and even if they hadn't, what their perspectives were on their own discipline background, as in what forms of discipline their parents had used, and what forms of discipline they chose to use, and I asked them which Scared Straight tactics they thought worked best. Then I drew a comparison between those tactics and the methods they use with their own children at home.

What I learned
From the small sample I have, I’m getting that people want what's best for kids; they have these good intentions, but they don't necessarily know what they want to see happen. Youth crime has so many layers; it’s not just one factor that influences outcomes for these youth, and so it is a complex problem to address.

The survey results show that the majority of my participants don’t think that the Scared Straight methods work. I found few people choose harsher methods with their own children: most people choose talking to their children, time-outs, praise and rewards over spanking and yelling. 

And I found out there is not a lot of measurable evaluations of these programs. So even though they’re continuing to run – and some of the interventions they use may be effective – they’re not being evaluated to figure out what is working.

The next step
I hope my research will lead to people asking questions so that we're not just falling back on things that we've always done, but so that we’re actually looking critically at the interventions we use with kids  and trying to properly evaluate what's effective so that we can help youth who are getting involved in crime.

The biggest takeaways
I think these programs are really well-intentioned –  the inmates have good intentions, the parents want to do something for their kids, the public wants to see hope for kids who are in trouble – but more evaluation is necessary, because in the U.S. there are hundreds of these programs, but nobody really knows whether or not they work.

Also, the literature is saying that these programs are really cost-effective – they run totally for free, and the participants are voluntary – so there isn't really a drive to evaluate them. It would be good to see more research come out of what already exists and have people say, OK, let's measure what parts of these programs are working really well so that we can find an effective deterrent for keeping kids out of jail.

Look for more interviews with student researchers this week on doug.