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Scared Straight and why ‘common sense’ is not always the best guide for policy

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At the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth we often encounter frustration with our findings – most strongly in response to our reports on Sport and Culture and Estate Renewal. We accept complaints about the lack of a good evidence based in economic development policy in general, and are working to correct that. But there is a more basic objection that sometimes our findings fly in the face of ‘common sense’. In response to this, I thought I’d give a well known example that shows how common sense can lead us astray.

It was an accepted fact when I was growing up in America that the ‘Scared Straight’ programme was a great way to keep kids who had been involved in minor criminal activity from ending up involved in serious crime and serving time in prison. The innovative programme took young men to meet prisoners and see firsthand how difficult life inside is.

The programme was widely known because of a series of edgy documentaries which have been revisited with new participants since the 1970s. In 2011 a large meta-analysis of the programme’s results across the US over the past 4 decades produced compelling evidence that those who participated in Scared Straight were more likely to end up in prison than similar kids who did not. According to the authors: ‘we conclude that programs like ‘Scared Straight’ are likely to have a harmful effect and increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to the same youths.’

In spite of this evidence that the programme is actively harmful, the popular reality show featuring its dramatic encounters between troubled children and hard-bitten criminals has been re-made for the last three years. Some localities still run the programme, which the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange says is popular because it fits with the popular demand for approaches which are ‘tough on crime’ – and it is cheap to run.

Scared Straight is one of the clearest examples of the persistence of policies which capture the public imagination. This is often the challenge for evidence-based policy-making. We have encountered many who refuse to accept that running a sporting event, for example, will not necessarily produce a lasting boost to the local economy. When such evidence flies in the face of ‘common sense’ it is important to step back and carefully assess the evidence. But that prescription runs both ways. ‘Common sense’ isn’t always a great guide to policy, as the Scared Straight programme nicely illustrates.