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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 / December 27, 1999



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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.

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."