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As Long as We Remember...

February 24, 2011

Approaching Crime Prevention

Amanda Haddaway

I’ve always had an interest in criminal justice, so it’s not surprising that I’ve quickly become a big fan of A&E’s show “Beyond Scared Straight.”


The show is a documentary that profiles youth offenders as they visit high-security prisons and take part in inmate-run intervention and diversion programs. Many prisons have set up these programs to dissuade teenagers from breaking the law again. The premise is that if the current inmates can make an impression on the youth, they will help keep them out of a life in prison, and, hopefully, get them back on a positive path. The show is truly fascinating.


Two of the episodes focus on Maryland area prisons – Jessup and Hagerstown. The Jessup episode has already aired, but is being rebroadcast this month. The Hagerstown episode will be broadcast tonight (February 24th) at 10 P.M. and again tomorrow (February 25th) at 2 A.M. Prisons in South Carolina and California are also profiled in the multi-part series.


There is a stark contrast between Jessup’s facilities and those in California. In San Quentin, video footage showed leaking pipes near the cells, as well as trash strewn in the hallways. The noise of the inmates’ cries and screams were deafening. Many behaved like caged animals.


For some of the youth offenders, just seeing this environment was enough to scare them straight, or so they professed in interviews after spending the day in prison. Others had a change of heart about their criminal lifestyles after hearing the inmates’ stories about how they landed in prison. Some had been there since they were teenagers and many will never leave because their crimes were so heinous.


It appears that California’s justice system is quite tough. Its sentences seem to be much more stringent than Maryland’s slaps on the wrists, where murderers sometimes walk free after only serving a few years and repeat offenders are left on the streets.


The episodes include brief interviews with the parents of the youth offenders. In all cases, the parents love their children and are fearful for their continued safety. Some live with one parent, but about half come from two parent homes.


Each episode concludes with a recap of what happened to the teenagers a month after filming concluded. Some were able to make a serious change in their behavior, but some continued down a path that led them into juvenile detention facilities. Undoubtedly, some of these teen offenders will end up as long-term or lifetime residents of the same facilities that they visited.


Earlier this month, The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services made the decision to suspend its diversion program, a decision that officials said is not related to the show, according to the Associated Press. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation made a similar decision and South Carolina is currently reviewing their program.


Apparently, the actions are a result of a warning from the U.S. Justice Department, which has threatened to reduce federal funding if the prisons have not complied with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The act was originally put into place in 1974 and revised in 2008. Two of its key provisions are to keep children out of adult jails and prisons (with limited exceptions) and to refocus attention on prevention programs intended to keep children from ever entering the juvenile or criminal justice systems.


Since the participants don’t stay in the prison overnight, it’s unclear how these programs would be in violation of the act. Nonetheless, it’s not surprising to see Maryland backing off from anything related to harsh punishments. This is the same state that is also considering abolishing the death penalty.


If the state eliminates “scared straight” programs, abolishes the death penalty and is perpetually soft on sentencing, what deterrents do criminals have?


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