Poor Discipline: Why Scared Straight Programs and Boot Camps Don’t Help Teens at Risk for Substance Use and Addiction
For over 30 years, programs like Scared Straight and juvenile boot camps for teens have been used as a way to try and help troubled youth. These programs utilize different methods that revolve around the same basic principle: that instilling a sense of consequence, discipline, fear, and pro-social behaviors in teens struggling with behavioral issues and substance problems will provide them with healthier, more structured lives, and deter them from committing crimes.
Yet these programs have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Experts who study the justice system have questioned if they’re truly effective. Additionally, staff members in boot camp programs have been accused (and convicted) of abusing the teens they’re supposed to be helping.
The History of Scared Straight and Boot Camps
Scared Straight programs started in New Jersey in the 1970’s, and were popularized by the 1978 Academy Award winning documentary Scared Straight!, which followed a group of teens participating in a Scared Straight program. In this film – and in most of the Scared Straight programs – teens who are thought to be at high risk for delinquency are brought to a prison, shown the facilities, and then (often in screams), told by inmates the ways in which they’re destroying their lives by committing crimes and using drugs. These confrontational lessons reflect the inmates’ own experiences.
In the documentary – and among many advocates of Scared Straight programs – it is claimed that there are low rates of re-arrest for teens who participate in these programs. In one study, it was suggested that 10 out of 12 adolescents remained offense-free in the three month follow-up.
Teen boot camps – military-like training programs frequently located in rural areas – operate in a similar manner. Boot camps often revolve around grueling physical activities and tough discipline, intended to instill a sense of order in adolescents and stamp out non-conforming or oppositional behavior. Developed in Louisiana in 1985, boot camps gained immense popularity in the 1990’s. They were less expensive than putting juveniles in detention centers and thought to be more effective.
Most adolescents in the boot camps complete the residential program without incident (i.e., without committing infractions that would have them removed from the program) – at rates as high as 96 percent. By 1995, 30 states had a form of adolescent boot camps for juvenile offenders.
According to the Science, They Don’t Work
Though a few studies suggested that Scared Straight worked, many others showed less successful results. In fact, research showed that the re-arrest rate after Scared Straight was actually higher than for teens who never participated in these programs. In other words, teens participating in Scared Straight were committing more crimes.
The strict discipline provided by boot camps has also been shown to fail the troubled teens they’re supposed to serve. Re-arrest rates are high among graduates of boot camps, and many of these programs were – and continue to be – completely unregulated, without any mental health professionals on staff. There have even been a number of cases of physical and sexual abuse in boot camps and, tragically, a few teens have died while in the program. Some boot camps have been shut down as a result of abuse. By 2009 only 11 states retained boot camps for juvenile offenders.
Scared Straight and boot camps fail for the reason they’re supposed to succeed: the threat or delivery of harsh negative consequences. Indeed, teens exposed to Scared Straight programs tend to idealize the structure found in prisons – an element that is often missing from juvenile offenders’ lives. For those attending boot camps, the rough conditions only seem to encourage more aggressive behaviors – obviously not what’s needed for teens already facing the legal system or suffering from a substance or behavioral problem.
What You Can Do
There’s no quick and easy fix for an adolescent struggling with substance use or a related behavioral disorder. Be proactive when helping your teen, and research what kind of program best suits their needs. There are many effective, safe treatment centers that offer help – but it’s important to make sure they have licensed health professionals on staff, and that the program uses evidence-based practices that take a health-promoting rather than a punitive approach. Addiction is a disease and, like other diseases, it cannot be cured through fear and punishment.
Please refer to our patient guide for information on finding appropriate and effective help for a friend or family member in need of addiction treatment.
Max Dorfman, MA
Max is a Science Writer at Center on Addiction