Visit to Coroner’s Office is Old Wine in New Bottles

 

Here we go again, another simplistic program to “scare straight” those headed for a life of crime.  It’s called the Clark County Coroner's Visitation Program and it was started a couple of years ago.  "With what you guys are doing, you guys could end up here," warns one of the creators of the program, retired police homicide detective Roy Chandler.  He, along with Ron Moracco, a driver education teacher with the school district, take a group of kids in detention at the juvenile justice center in an attempt to “educate them.” They claim a success rate of almost 90 percent (out of 1,650 who have completed the three-hour course, only 12.6 percent have been re-arrested).

            I was interviewed by Las Vegas Sun reporter Jen Lawson, who subsequently wrote the story (“Deterrence program teaches grim lessons,” Las Vegas Sun, April 21).  I said a lot during the roughly 15 minute interview by phone, most of which did not appear in her story.  This is not unusual, but she did say she was trying to provide another perspective to this kind of program, a “balance” as they say in the business.  Not too much “balance” was provided, however, as about 95% of it was giving one side to the program – the “true believers.”

            The creators of the program claim that it is not like scared straight, which they correctly note was never effective.  However, from the description of what this program does, it is a variation of the theme.  To me it is “old wine in new bottles.”  Their alleged success rate is bogus, to be blunt. Let me give some reasons why this is the case.

            It is interesting to note that one of the persons helping to run the program is also a driver education teacher with the school district.  I’m not sure if they still do this, but I, along with millions of other high school students during the past half century, have suffered through “driver education” classes where they always seem to show movies or photos of strange death scenes produced by the Ohio State Highway Patrol.  You remember these don’t you, where we all went “ooh and ah” over the gory scenes and laughed about it afterwards.  We were given these stern warnings about how “this is what happens when you drive too fast, or drive after drinking.”  Then we quickly forgot about the warnings because, after all, at that age we were invincible and this would never happen to us.

            In the final analysis this is what the Clark County Coroner's Visitation Program is all about: a delinquent youth will be “scared straight” after seeing what will happen to him if he does not change his behavior.  This is, to be blunt again, total nonsense.  This is nothing more than another simplistic bromide that those in authority throw our way every once in a while.  I was, not surprisingly, misunderstood by the Sun reporter as she claimed that I “said it seems well-intended and he doesn't necessarily object to it.”  I did indeed object to it – strenuously in fact.  What I said was that taking people down to the Coroner’s office as a public educational program (e.g., for high school students in general) makes sense, and in fact I wouldn’t mind going down there sometime.  But don’t try to sell this as a panacea for delinquency. 

            The reporter did mention my complaint about not having a “control group,” which is one of the most important principles of sound research, especially the kind that evaluates programs like this one.  They said that 1,650 kids from detention have gone through the program.  What they don’t tell us is how these kids were selected.  On any given day, 250 kids are in detention so that several thousand have been processed through the system during the time the program has been in existence.  What would happen if they compared this to a group that did not visit the Coroner’s office?  

            It is very common for people to support some kind of program simply because it “makes sense” or it “feels good.”  I recall a former drug czar’s comment in response to the research showing that DARE was ineffective.  He said something to the effect that he did not care what the research said, he saw the tears in the eyes of some of the kids who graduated from the program and that convinced him that it worked.  A common refrain is something to the effect that “if it saves one person” then it is worth it. Roy Chandler stated that “Even if the recidivism rate is 99 percent, it would still be worth it because it means that one kid stayed out of trouble.”  Well, I regret throwing the water of reality on such a belief, but this is simply not true.  Suppose you spend a million dollars on a program, but only one kid is helped while 99 others are not or even some of those 99 become worse?  What if you had a “miracle drug” that cures one out of 100 while killing 50 or so, would that be worth it?  Such a conclusion Mr. Chandler arrives at is ludicrous on its face.  But it is a common one. 

            We humans seem to want to reduce complex social problems, such as delinquency, to simplistic, “feel good” sound bytes.  If it were only that simple.  If it were only true that you could prevent a problem by scaring someone or telling them of the awful consequences of their conduct.  Life would be so much easier.  Problems would be solved instantly, without the hard work of changing human behavior.  Delinquency – including the problem of gangs – is a complex, multi-causal phenomenon.  If the solution were as simple as those who designed and operated this program, the Nobel Prize would be forthcoming, funding grants would be flowing from the National Institute of Justice or the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and it would be front page news, while they would be special guests at the White House and would be appearing on Larry King Live.  

 

For original news item see: http://www.lasvegassun.com/sunbin/stories/sun/2005/apr/21/518641151.html?Detention%20Center