States fall out of (tough) love with boot camps

Recent incidents in South Dakota and Maryland prompt lawmakers to

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A CLOSER LOOK

Boot camps for juvenile offenders - a punishing "tough love" approach to reform - are falling out of favor in many states, 20 years after they came into vogue as the last, best hope for helping troubled youths.

The reason: Routinely shoving a kid's face in the dirt - a practice reported recently in a Maryland camp - may well knock the chip off his shoulder, but it also increases the potential for abuse, or even death.

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From Georgia to Maryland, Arizona to South Dakota, reports of abuse have prompted states to shut down or reevaluate the tough, sometimes punitive, approach popularized in the early 1990s.

State and federal prosecutors have opened criminal and civil rights investigations into the allegations of misconduct at an increasing number of camps. They are investigating, for example, the death of a 14-year-old girl in South Dakota died from dehydration during a long-distance run this summer, as well as reports of systematic assaults at Maryland's three juvenile-justice boot camps, which lead to the ouster of the state's top five juvenile-justice officials last week.

"When boot camps came in they were politically popular. They gave people the impression that, by subjecting troubled kids to military discipline and verbal abuse, they'll be frightened into compliance," says Dan Macallair of the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal-justice think tank in San Francisco. "But it hasn't worked. Studies consistently show they're not effective in reducing recidivism rates."

Time to reform?

Critics say boot camps have been rife with the potential for abuse right from the start. They say the reevaluation is long overdue and hope current scrutiny signals a swing toward more therapeutic approaches that focus on drug treatment, education, and vocational training.

But supporters worry that a rush to judgment based on a few clear cases of abuse could undermine an intervention that has proved to be effective with some kids. They say the key is more intensive treatment and follow-up after kids leave the camps.

"When boot camps are good, they are very, very good," says Doris McKenzie, a researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park. "But when they are bad they are horrid, and that's what's scary."

Currently, more than 50 boot camps house about 4,500 juvenile offenders nationwide. Most were opened in the early to mid-1990s, when juvenile-justice officials hoped to emulate the paramilitary-style reforms that had become popular in the 1980s in the adult correctional system. At the time, advocates believed the camps had the potential to bring down repeat-offender rates to as low as 25 percent. That proved overly optimistic.

Studies for the Justice Department found that boot camps' national recidivism rates ranged from 64 to 75 percent, not that much different from traditional facilities.

"Our main conclusion was that boot camps the way people were doing them just didn't work," says Mike Slusher, director of the Koch Crime Institute in Topeka, Kan., which did an analysis of boot camps for Kansas in 1995. "When the kid came back he was a much better kid, but it was transient. It didn't last because he went back into the same environment he came from."

Critics also contend the paramilitary nature of the facilities makes them far more susceptible to abuses. At the same time, they're difficult to monitor.

"This is an intervention that was fraught with problems from the beginning," says Paul DeMuro, a juvenile-justice expert who's studied boot camps for the federal government.

Maryland's experience

In Maryland, the heavy-handed treatment of juvenile offenders was so accepted that a reporter and photographer from The Sun in Baltimore were able to document cases of kids routinely being thrown to the ground, shoved, and jabbed with excessive force.

Ms. McKenzie says such incidents are the exception in boot camps across the country and are a direct result of poorly trained staff. She also attributes the recidivism rates to a lack of consistent follow-up and after-care. She recently completed a study of 25 juvenile boot camps, comparing them with traditional facilities. Boot camps fared very well.

"The juveniles perceived the [boot camp] situation as better almost across the board - the environment was more caring, they could be more active, there was better therapy, and there was less danger from the environment, less danger from other inmates," she says.

But McKenzie's study also found that the juvenile offenders were at a much greater risk from the staff - a point critics are quick to pick up on. In addition, her study said that while the camps in general provided a better environment, they weren't providing the "kind of intensive therapy and treatment [kids] really need."

Reports in The Sun prompted the state of Maryland to shut down one boot camp and suspend the military regimen at its other two facilities. The state police opened a criminal probe, the FBI is investigating civil rights violations, and the state's top juvenile-justice officials were fired. The governor also announced he will appoint a new task force to examine after-care, which The Sun series also described as "in shambles," with probationers routinely skipping drug treatment and other follow-up therapies.

Where we go from here

Critics hope the problems in Maryland and South Dakota will prompt other states to reexamine their boot-camp facilities and find alternatives.

But not all advocates of reform of the correctional system are in agreement. Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, recently completed a study of the state's adult boot camps and concluded the state should expand them.

In New York, at least, he found the staff respected the inmates, even as they kept them to a strict, disciplined regimen. Moreover, the facilities were clean with a minimum of violence.

"The purpose of the program was to help people turn their lives around. The purpose of the regular prison is to warehouse them," says Mr. Gangi.

"Any program benefits they get in that experience is incidental," he adds. "My guess is some of the people [in the boot camps] really were helped."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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