Would a “scared straight” boot camp work for a child with oppositional defiant disorder?

Re: Would a “scared straight” boot camp work for a child with oppositional defiant disorder?

The short answer is: not according to the research.

“Scared Straight” is a program designed to deter “bad” teens from future criminal offenses. The teenagers visit inmates, observe first-hand prison life, and have interaction with adult inmates. Since many desperate parents are looking for a “quick fix,” these programs have become very popular.

The basic idea behind these programs is that children and teens who see what prison is like will be deterred from future violations of the law (i.e., they will be frightened into behaving properly). Scared Straight emphasizes severity of consequences, but neglects two other key components of “deterrence theory” — certainty and swiftness. Why is this important? Because teens (in their naiveté) believe (a) “incarceration is never going to happen to me” and (b) “even if I do get incarcerated, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

One study investigated the effects of programs comprising organized visits to prisons by teen offenders (officially adjudicated or convicted by a juvenile court) or pre-offenders (kids in trouble but not officially adjudicated as “delinquents”), aimed at deterring them from any further criminal activity.

The selection criteria for the research they reviewed were:
  • Each study investigated had to include a no-treatment control condition with at least one outcome measure of “post visit” criminal behavior
  • Only studies that randomly or quasi-randomly assigned participants to conditions were included
  • Overlapping sample of teens and young adults (ages 14-20) were included
  • Studies that assessed effects of any program involving organized visits of teens or kids at- risk for criminality to penal institutions

Nine trials met the criteria for the study. The researchers’ results indicated that the Scared Straight program to be more harmful than doing nothing. The program effect, whether assuming a fixed or random effects model, was nearly identical and negative in direction, regardless of the meta-analytic strategy.

So, according to the study, the Scared Straight program not only does NOT work, it may actually be more harmful than doing nothing.

Another study showed that the Scared Straight program could possibly worsen Conduct Disorder symptoms. And yet another study showed that the program and similar programs produced substantial increases – not decreases – in recidivism (i.e., chronic relapse into crime).

The Scared Straight program relies on a deterrence-based strategy that fails to consider the driving mechanisms of deterrence. These mechanisms include (a) certainty of receiving a consequence (i.e., negative stimuli following a behavior), and (b) swiftness of the consequence (i.e., temporal proximity of punishment to the unwanted behavior). In other words, an uncomfortable consequence must be presented shortly after the unwanted behavior.


1. Aos, S., Phillips, P., Barnoski, R., & Lieb, R. (2001). The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs to Reduce Crime. Olympia: Wash. State Inst. Public Policy.
2. Hale, J. (2010). Interview with Dr. DiMichelle. Via e-mail [accessed Nov.23, 2010].
3. Lilienfeld, SO. (2005). Scientifically Unsupported and Supported Interventions for Childhood Psychopathology: A Summary. PEDIATRICS 115; 761-764.
4. Lilienfeld, SO., Lynn, SJ., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, BL. (2010). 50 GREAT MYTHS OF POPULAR PSYCHOLOGY: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell.
5. Marion, N.E., & Oliver, W.M. (2006). The public policy of crime and criminal justice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
6. Mears, D.P. (2007). Towards Rational and Evidence-based Crime Policy. Journal of Criminal Justice. 35; 667-682.
7. Petrosino, A., Turpin-Petrosino, C., & Buehler, J. (2002). “Scared Straight” and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (2): CD002796.

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