`Boot Camps' vs. Jail: The Jury Is Still Out

Clinton proposal to invest more in camps spurs critics to cry that they don't work

THE Clinton administration is proposing a $3 billion investment in ``boot camps'' - the military-style temporary incarceration programs. But 10 years of experience at the state level has yet to produce clear evidence they work.

While recidivism rates differ by state, as much as 60 percent of boot-camp graduates are arrested within a year of their release, according to recent studies.

``What is disappointing is that these findings demonstrate that the recidivism rates among people who had been to boot camp does not differ significantly from recidivism among similar offenders who had been on probation or served time in jail,'' said Doris MacKenzie, a University of Maryland researcher who has studied eight boot-camp programs.

But over the last decade, 30 states and the federal government have experimented with boot camps to address an ongoing national problem: too few prison cells and tougher mandatory sentences that will only aggravate overcrowded prisons.

In some ways, boot camps are a practical solution. Administration officials say they free up space by allowing judges to sentence first-time nonviolent offenders to temporary incarceration rather than longer jail stays, and they curb crime by placing offenders in an environment free of career criminals where discipline, respect for authority, and hard work are taught.

``If you put more first-time offenders into boot camps, then you free up space for hard criminals in state and federal penitentiaries,'' said Bill Adams, Senate Judiciary Committee press secretary. ``And, simultaneously, you're keeping these new offenders away from the criminal culture of prisons.''

Boot camps are also generally cheaper to run than prisons, said John Russell, a Justice Department spokesman. Because sentences tend to be shorter than those in jails, the cost of keeping an offender in camp rather than jail for a longer period of time is usually less.

But in some states, boot camps are more costly to run than prisons. In Montana, a camp inmate costs about $48 a day; in prison, about $42. In Georgia, an inmate costs $48.07 while a prisoner in jail costs $50.22, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Boot camp can be more costly

In some instances, boot camp - because of high dropout rates - may add to the cost a state pays per prisoner. If inmates leave camp, they must serve prison terms - and the taxpayer pays for their failed attempts at camp and their subsequent prison stays.

However, the numbers are tricky to interpret because the effectiveness of camp programs differs by state and camp. In Oklahoma, for example, 66 percent of boot-camp graduates returned after three years, reports the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. But in Florida, 26.6 percent returned to their camp system within a year of initial release, compared with 32.3 percent of a similar group who served time in prison.

What do the numbers mean? Some say they prove the issue isn't as cut and dried as most camp critics claim. They say if camps can help a few offenders, then they're making a crack in the crime rate.

``Boot camps aren't a panacea,'' said Al Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. ``They represent a means to reform a fraction of those offenders who can be helped.''

Critics counter that even if camp program effectiveness differs by state, the fact that recidivism rates can approach 60 percent speaks for itself. And to invest more money in boot-camp programs that are, on average, ineffective is not worth the risk. ``There's not a scintilla of evidence that boot camps cut recidivism as a nationwide phenomena,'' said Jerome Miller, president of the National Center of Institutions and Alternatives. ``In fact, over the years, we've seen them deteriorate into sadistic places that turn the men they try to heal into brutes.''

Indeed, for the past 10 years, states have wrestled with criticisms that boot camps haven't made a dent in crime. Inmates who qualify for camp programs can choose it over longer sentences of from one to five years in regular prison.

Once in boot camp, offenders receive a military-style ``shock'' incarceration program of three to six months. Most feature hard labor and drills aimed at shocking offenders into becoming good citizens; some offer school training and group support meetings. The goal is to whip criminals into shape and ease prison overcrowding. If you do well, your record is wiped clean; if you don't, you face long-term imprisonment.

Discipline, respect taught

Supporters of boot camps say the camps teach discipline and respect for authority - two things not often learned in prison. As such, camps could be a way to save many guilty of minor offenses from a life of crime. ``When you're dealing with first-time offenders, the goal is to make them do their time without sticking them in the same cell as hard-core criminals,'' Mr. Adams said.

Still, many have criticized boot camps, saying they aren't conducive to teaching respect for authority.

According to Hunter Hurst, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice who many years ago served time in a camp himself, boot camp is merely a form of conditioning. ``When given commands, we were trained to respond to [instructors], almost like circus animals,'' he says. ``When our `trainers' weren't there, we would tear the place up. They taught me nothing about balancing toughness and gentleness, a balance that is required if one is to live in society.''

Most critics agree the $3 billion shouldn't go toward new camps but toward helping existing ones expand programs to include substance-abuse treatment and job training. ``If boot camp becomes a place that not only teaches you how to shout `yes, sir,' but a place where you can also learn how to go about getting a job once you're out, the $3 billion sum we're looking at may pay off,'' said Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice and sentencing-reform group. ``Otherwise, it's a long shot.''

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