Why Arizona Gives the Boot To Boot Camps for Juveniles

The guards march into the yard in a column of twos. Capt. Byron McDonald peers at a scraggly group of youth offenders. He minces no words: "This is your last chance."

In a flash, his troops are on the new enrollees like sweat in the Arizona heat, delivering messages inches away from the youths' faces. "We're going to teach you to think before you act," he barks. "So you don't go back to the 'hood and live your doggone criminal life."

But this speech is Captain McDonald's last. When Platoon 138 graduates in September, Arizona officials will call an end to these 120-day military-style boot camps - get-tough programs designed to shock first-time offenders into never returning to prison.

After a seven-year love affair, state officials are ending the program that they once touted as a way to save money and reduce crowded prisons. They've determined the idea doesn't work.

It's a move that's likely to add to a growing national debate over the effectiveness of boot camps. States continue to turn to the "shock incarceration" technique to fight juvenile crime. In an era of tough justice, the camps are seen as a way to dole out stern punishment to nonviolent and first-time offenders - and keep them from becoming repeat criminals by exposing them to military-like discipline.

But research has shown mixed results, at best: One federally funded study in 1994 found that the repeat offender rate for those released from boot camps was no better than for those serving time in traditional prisons.

Arizona's rejection of the camps may fly the strongest cautionary flag yet to state and federal officials increasingly enamored with the get-tough approach to juvenile crime.

"It all sells good politically, but it's a big lie," says Dennis Palumbo, professor of justice at Arizona State University. "We keep throwing money at these problems, but they don't go away. We're just not spending it right."

Arizona prison officials say they can no longer justify spending the $1.5 million it takes to support the boot-camp program each year. The money can be better used, they say.

Terry Stewart, director of the state Department of Corrections, says the department has found the success rate of the program is dismal. A recent study showed that only 22.6 percent of those admitted to Arizona's boot camps had successfully completed the program and had not been arrested for another offense since graduating. That is roughly half the success rate of those sentenced to traditional jail time.

Mr. Stewart believes it would be better to turn the boot camps into traditional prisons to ease overcrowding. He also says he needs the 34 prison guards who are assigned to the intensive program, where 18- to 25-year-olds get up early and are fed a daily diet of exercise, drills, physical work, and verbal abuse. Most are sent there on drug charges, burglary, or theft.

Stewart says the way the shock-incarceration program was set up may have been flawed from the start. "It's a program directed at making significant changes in an individual in 120 days," he says. "I just think the window is too small."

The leader of a local prison-rights group agrees. "It's clearly a waste," says Donna Leone Hamm of Middle Group Prison Reform. "It sounds good, it's a quick fix, and it's well packaged. But there's no meat on the bones."

Still, boot camps are sprouting up in growing numbers across the country. Currently, 35 states have some type of military-style incarceration camp.

A recent crime bill passed into law by Congress contains a $21 million appropriation for boot camp-related planning grants, renovation, and construction projects.

The method is hailed as a cost-saving alternative to the prison overpopulation crisis that is gripping many states.

Experts also say the boot camp concept fits well in a culture where the military is seen as a place for young people to go to try to straighten out. "People see the tough atmosphere of a boot camp and like what they see," says Doris MacKenzie, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland. "They want to punish offenders."

But she says results are still out over whether the programs scattered across the country are worthwhile tools to be used in combating crime. "We're at a critical stage," Ms. MacKenzie says. "We're still trying to figure out what works and how that fits in with dealing with the whole crime problem."

Scott Smith, a legislative liaison for the Arizona corrections department, says he hopes the state's findings will provide some of the answers. "I believe that this may cause other states to at least study the issue like we did," Mr. Smith says. "We really could be the impetus for change."

But in Florence, those connected to the boot camp have no use for the studies and statistics. They have no doubts the program works; they know first-hand success stories.

"It's a sad day," says camp teacher Barry McMacken on this last first day for camp newcomers. She looks up at the blue banners from the previous boot-camp classes that hang from the rafters of an on-site warehouse. "There are so many people who could have had a chance in life who now won't."

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