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Jefferson County suspends ‘Scared Straight’ program

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Following a Feb. 14 memo from the state Commission of Correction’s chairman, the Jefferson County Probation Department has suspended a program that gave at-risk youth a taste of jail in an effort to scare them away from a life of crime.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Probation Director Edward E. Brown. “It did seem to be a fairly good program.”

The program, “Wake Up,” has been around for almost 18 years, according to the probation officer who helped create it, Steven J. Anderson.

The memo specifies “Scared Straight” programs such as Wake Up are a violation of one of the core provisions of the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

According to the act, juveniles and adult inmates are required to be housed separately. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has determined the separation requirement also applies to programs such as “Wake Up.”

The Probation Department immediately stopped the program after receiving the memo. Failure to do so could have resulted in a significant reduction in federal grant money for corrections facilities in the county.

Television shows such as A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight” and even “Saturday Night Live” sketches have given “Scared Straight” programs a high degree of exposure in popular culture, though some experts have raised serious concerns about their efficacy.

In January 2011, the Baltimore Sun published an opinion piece written by two Justice Department officials critical of the programs.

The article read, in part, “‘scared straight’ is not only ineffective but is potentially harmful.”

The authors pointed to a 2002 study of nine “Scared Straight”-type programs by the Campbell Collaboration that found at-risk teenagers who participated in a shock incarceration program were up to 28 percent more likely to offend than at-risk teenagers who did not participate.

Despite that, probation officials said the program, which involved about 160 participants annually, served an important purpose in Jefferson County.

Here, juvenile delinquents are generally sentenced to terms of probation ranging from four months to a year. While they were on probation, the department would track “Wake Up” program participants.

“A lot of people say the program doesn’t work, but it worked for us,” Mr. Anderson said. “For that year that we dealt with the kid, things pretty much settled down.”

Through the program, individuals ranging in age from 10 to 21 who had been involved in the county justice system or had been referred to the program by the Department of Social Services, law enforcement officials or the Children’s Home Preventive Program, among others, were afforded a brief experience of what life is like in the county jail at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building.

While parents or guardians sat in the building’s lobby, participants in the program would go through intake and booking and be placed in a holding cell before having their fingerprints and photographs taken and being moved to one of the jail’s pods. The whole process took about an hour, Mr. Anderson said. No doors were ever locked and a corrections officer provided close supervision.

As opposed to some other programs, which tour corrections facilities in groups, each participant went through the process alone. That enhanced the program’s effect, according to Mr. Anderson.

At the end of it, “tears would be flowing ... they were glad to see their parents,” he said.

Participants sometimes interacted with inmates.

According to Mr. Anderson, inmates often said, “‘I wish I had this kind of program when I was growing up. Maybe I wouldn’t be here.’”

After completing the program, each participant would have to write a one-page essay about the experience at the jail.

“We seemed to get a pretty good response from the kids,” Mr. Brown said. “I don’t know if it had a lasting effect, but it had an immediate effect.”

Mr. Brown and Mr. Anderson expressed concern about losing the program.

“I understand the reasoning behind it. It’s just too bad we couldn’t find an alternative to it that was similar. Maybe in the future something will come up,” Mr. Brown said. “If we reach one kid, then we’ve accomplished our goal.”

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