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Bibb County ‘scared straight’ program is popular, but do children benefit?

Bibb County Law Enforcement Center inmates interact with youths enrolled in the Bibb County Sheriff's Office Consider the Consequences program, a one-year-old Scared Straight program.
Bibb County Law Enforcement Center inmates interact with youths enrolled in the Bibb County Sheriff's Office Consider the Consequences program, a one-year-old Scared Straight program. Georgia Public Broadcasting

At the inmate’s direction, the children drop to the floor.

“Down!” she shouts, almost screeching.

There’s a new command almost immediately.

“Up!”

Then another one just as fast.

“Jump!”

The kids can’t keep up. They aren’t meant to. Pretty soon it’s obvious that many of them, especially the ones who aren’t yet teenagers, are terrified.

This is the Consider the Consequences program at the Bibb County Law Enforcement Center in Macon. It’s a youth intervention program a little over a year old now, modeled on programs made popular by the “Scared Straight!” documentary that aired on public television stations in the late 1970s.

The children here have driven their parents, grandparents or guardians to their wits’ end. Before turning over their kids to the program, parents were invited to share with the group — parents and children alike — their list of problems.

“Disrespectful, being suspended multiple times, in-school suspension, stealing and don’t want to mind,” one mother said. “He bought some brass knuckles from another child, but he got caught with them.”

Bibb County sheriff’s Lt. Ellis Sinclair runs the intervention program. He wants to change behavior like this before children in trouble become adults in jail.

“And when I say change the behavior, we're not really into the scaring business,” Ellis said.

Ellis said this is about something else entirely.

“A child wants to be loved and a child wants to know that somebody cares,” he said.

So call this tough love. As popular as these programs have been over the 35 years since the original “Scared Straight!” documentary, one question remains: How effective is this brand of tough love at keeping children out of jail?

Paul Klenowski is a criminologist at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. As a kid, he watched that old documentary on PBS. Later, as a doctoral student, he couldn’t shake the memory of what it promised.

“This idea touting a reduction rate of recidivism by 80 percent always stuck in the back of my mind,” he said.

So with his research partners Keith Bell and Kimberly Dodson, he decided to see if the decades of science conducted around such programs bore out that number — to see if fear, in fact, could serve as a tool for changing a child’s behavior.

After looking at a dozen different studies, he said the answer was stark.

“The fear arousal approach does not work,” Klenowski said.

What was clear to the researchers across those dozen studies was that children were actually more likely to go to jail as an adult if they had been through a “scared straight” program. How much more?

“We're seeing an increase anywhere between 15 to 28 percent,” Klenowski said.

Nowhere did they find evidence that scaring children in jails ever had a positive effect. At best it did nothing. Their findings were published in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation in 2010.

Bibb County Superior Court Judge Verda Colvin brings a courtroom full of "Consider the Consequences" participants in 2016 to tears, and all she does is tell the truth.

FACE TO FACE WITH INMATES

Later in the Consider the Consequences program, the children are led into the main area of the jail. Cell doors are open, and inmates are in their faces. The sound of the screaming adults — and the children screaming in return — is deafening at times.

At one point a pair of jail guards lift one 9-year-old boy and shove him head first into an open cell. He tries as hard as he can to stay out.

Later, the boys are in a cell together eating their lunch of bologna sandwiches and an apple. They talk about who they saw in the jail that they already knew. Someone mentions a cousin. The 9-year-old says he saw his dad for the first time in seven years.

Over in the female jail block, a 13-year-old girl whose mother was worried that she was already sexually active had been grilled by inmates. The girl has been sending out sexually explicit texts.

“You like being a whore?” one inmate asks. “You like walking in front of people and them being like ‘Whore, whore, whore!’ ”

The inmate is just 17 herself. She has a 5-year-old son.

“Don’t be like me,” she tells the girl.

A camera crew from a syndicated TV show captures it all.

Klenowski doesn’t see how all this helps. After all, many of the children already come from chaotic homes.

“Confrontation does not work especially because many of these children are already survivors,” he said.

Klenowski said there are youth intervention programs that show real promise. Instead of the shock and awe of prison tours, these programs usually involve calm and often frank talk with inmates.

“The inmates being able to have a conversation with them and say ‘Listen, you do not want to end up here like me. And let me tell you why,’ ” he said.

There is some of that in this program, but only after a far longer period of intentional fear.

Bibb County Sheriff David Davis has seen the story the TV crew put together, which included the boy being shoved into the cell. He’s also seen the reaction to the show on social media. That’s been mostly positive.

“We had a call from someone in Ohio this morning who was wanting to know if there was a way they could get their child to participate in one of our upcoming sessions,” he said.

He said scaring kids is a cornerstone of the program.

“I think it serves a purpose,” he said. “But it's just one little piece of the bigger puzzle.”

The rest of the puzzle is a year of life skills classes for children and parents alike. Klenowski said that part sounds good. But what he would like is for criminologists like him to be invited inside such tough love programs to help out.

Davis said he already has experts steering the program.

“Counselors and people who have been down this road and people that know parenting and behavioral modification and all those kinds of things,” he said. “So we're open to anybody that wants to come in and help us with this program.”

The Consider the Consequences program takes in a new class of young people one Friday each month.

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