Boot Camps: An Idea Whose Time Came and Went Five years ago, responding to an increase in serious juvenile crime, the state of Maryland initiated one of the nation's largest boot camp programs for teenage criminals. The program, called the Leadership Challenge, quickly became the model for other states. But last week, after reviewing a task force report that documented instances of physical abuse at their camps, Maryland officials appeared on the verge of conceding that the current initiative was a failure. Military-style discipline may work as punishment at juvenile boot camps, but it has not been effective as rehabilitation. The Maryland experience, together with problems in other states, has already led some states to close their boot camps and even to rethink how their penal laws treat young offenders. All in all, it is a remarkable turn of events for an idea that was once greeted as a breakthrough in the fight against juvenile crime There is increasing evidence that boot camps never worked.
A national study last year by the Koch Crime Institute, a public policy group in Topeka, Kan. , showed that recidivism among boot camp attendees ranged from 64 percent to 75 percent, slightly higher than for youths sentenced to adult prisons. Gerald Wells, a senior research associate at the Koch Institute, said of the report, 'The shocking parts are the allegations of abuse, but the more alarming parts are the failures.' Research has also shown, according to Mr. Wells and other penal justice experts, that these camps were grounded in a false and unexamined assumption. 'People thought boot camps shaped up a lot of servicemen during three wars,' Mr. Wells added.
'But just because you place someone in a highly structured environment with discipline, does not mean once they get home, and are out of that, they will be model citizens.' Boot camps have their roots in the 1970's, with the advent of large, well-organized and extremely violent street gangs. In response to these groups, many states began to imprison more young people. By the 1990's, as the number of repeat juvenile offenders rose to record levels, it became clear that prison sentences were not working. In 1994, nearly 10, 000 juveniles were charged with criminal offenses, an all-time high.
More than 2, 300 of them were charged with murder, compared with fewer than 1, 000 in 1980, according to the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. On any given day, about 105, 000 children were in custody on criminal charges in the United States. It was in this atmosphere that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland began exploring the potential of boot camps. Shortly after being elected with Gov.
Parris N. Glendening in 1994, Ms. Townsend, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration, said she considered boot camps 'a cost-effective, intermediate punishment' and included them among her priorities. Ms.
Townsend has said the idea came from visiting a juvenile boot camp in Ohio. By then, a handful of states, including Georgia, Louisiana, West Virginia and Ohio, had begun well-publicized, promising experiments with juvenile camps. The camps, modeled after similar programs that popped up in England in the 1970's, were designed for juveniles who had committed moderately serious crimes, such as auto theft, with the goal of interceding before they moved to more serious crimes. By 1997, more than 27, 000 teenagers were passing through 54 camps in 23 states annually. The people who ran the real boot camps, were quite skeptical. 'The key reason we are successful is that we have a clientele down here that chose to be here on their own,' said Sgt.
Maj. Ford Kinsley, who oversees drill instructors at the United States Marine Corps' recruitment base in Parris Island, S. C. 'They are not here because a judge said you should go here.
Our population comes with a lot more positive attitudes.' He said that when 'a kid graduates from Parris Island, he is just beginning a four- or five-year enlistment in the Marine Corps. It is not like they spend 11 months here and we just throw them out onto the streets.' Then, too, the Marines traditionally chooses the best of its noncommissioned officers as boot camp instructors. By contrast, state standards vary widely. Rumors began to surface of beatings at Maryland's boot camps last August, and Ms. Townsend ordered an end to all inappropriate physical contact. But news reports in December suggesting such violations had continued led Ms.
Townsend and Mr. Glendening to launch an investigatory task force chaired by former Baltimore Police Commissioner Bishop T. Robinson, who also spent 10 years in charge of the state's prison system. On Dec. 15, the task force released a report that accused guards of routine and brutal beatings of inmates, and Mr. Glendening and Ms.
Townsend suspended the state's camps and dismissed the top five juvenile justice officials. Similar accusations have led state and local officials in Colorado, Arizona and North Dakota to drop their programs, while Florida and California are scaling back theirs. In Georgia, officials revamped their program after a Justice Department investigation concluded that the state's 'paramilitary boot camp model is not only ineffective, but harmful.' Some experts regard the entire boot camp experiment as a cynical political maneuver. 'Boot camps were just another knee-jerk reaction, a way to get tough with juveniles that resonated with the public and became a political answer,' said Dr. David M.
Altschul er, a juvenile justice expert at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Still, some believe the programs, in some form, can be useful. 'These are tough kids, with tough problems, they need good education and drug treatment and they also need to learn respect, self-respect, discipline and a new way of conducting themselves in society,' Ms. Townsend said. 'Facilities that provide structure and discipline can be run effectively and have a role in our fight after juvenile crime.' Many experts disagree, citing the expense of running such programs properly.
'It's a budget issue,' said Doris Mackenzie, a University of Maryland criminology professor. 'They are popular in the public, people feel we should treat these kids tough, and everyone can get onto the bandwagon,' she said. 'But when it comes to this extra expense of doing the follow-up, we find, the money is not there.' In any case, juvenile crime has been falling since 1994, after an overall drop in the nation's juvenile population. This will make it highly unlikely, say political observers, that voters will agree to pay for individualized rehabilitation.
Much more likely, they say, is that the 27, 000 young people who once went to boot camp each year will instead be sent to prison. As bad as boot camps have proved to be, Mr. Wells added, 'once you start incarcerating kids, you have lost. But unfortunately, that is where we seem headed.'.