Teen boot camps need regulation

A popular attitude toward juvenile delinquency in the 1800s was that unruly boys needed to be sent to the military in hopes the rugged discipline (and probably fire of combat) would “make a man out of them.” Archaic as this notion might seem in our significantly different world, many states and private companies continue to run paramilitary “boot camps” to which young offenders are sent by their parents or a judge. The July death of 14-year-old Anthony Haynes in one such boot camp in Arizona confirms what research on these camps has shown for years – they don’t work, and they’re dangerous – and the reopening of the camp last Thursday reveals how precariously little these camps are supervised.

The Arizona program was a private camp, since the state abolished its own boot camps in 1996 after finding that only 22.6 percent of juveniles admitted to its camps finished the program and were not arrested again – half the success rate of traditional jail time. Because the private program ran for less than a year, almost none of the state’s health and safety regulations applied to it. Not surprisingly, some participants in the camp reported that children were regularly hit, kicked and forced to eat dirt, leading one mother to accurately call it “a totally insane idea.”

The idea behind boot camps is an attractive one: Sentence first-time, nonviolent offenders to a boot camp program and teach them respect and discipline by forcing them to wear uniforms, perform physical exercises on demand, speak only when spoken to and address superiors as “sir.” As exercises and training build confidence and snarling drill instructors instill respect for authority, supporters contend, troubled juveniles will be diverted from lives of crime.

But empirical research demands a sharp about-face from this optimistic view. In a 1995 book, University law professor Michael Tonry summarizes an influential study by Doris MacKenzie. The study found significant improvements in boot camp participants’ self-esteem but no effect on offenders’ recidivism rates. The reason, Tonry writes, is that “graduates returned to the neighborhoods and influences that led them into trouble initially,” and since few boot camp programs provide support after offenders graduate, these youths are on their own against poverty, disrupted families and lack of education. Also, a 1998 study confirmed this view when it found national recidivism rates for boot camp graduates between 64 percent and 75 percent, only a few percentage points higher than traditional delinquency programs.

MacKenzie, a criminologist, believes offenders fare somewhat better when the paramilitary
environment is supplemented with education, counseling or drug treatment and backed up by intensive supervision after the camp ends. But since a key motivation behind states’ use of boot camps is saving money by freeing up prison cells, funding for such a comprehensive program is difficult to come by – especially since post-camp supervision is not as politically appealing as video clips of red-faced drill sergeants finally teaching those troublesome teens some manners.

But boot camps’ problems go beyond simply failing to solve the juvenile crime problem. According to The New York Times, in the last 20 years, 30 children have met Tony Haynes’ fate and died during their boot camp terms, and a 1990 study found boot camp participants become increasingly aggressive and tend to devalue women and “feminine traits” such as sensitivity. Also, officials in Ohio are looking for a former employee of the privately run JUMP boot camp who is accused of sexually assaulting two teen-age girls in July, while two other JUMP staffers are facing trial for child endangerment. Several Ohio counties sentence juvenile offenders to the JUMP camp as an alternative to a boot camp run by the Ohio National Guard, and Ohio has taken as little responsibility as Arizona for regulating such private camps. Arizona lawmakers have begun talking about regulating private boot camps – after camps in that state have seen 10 children die since 1989.

The lack of regulation is undoubtedly contributing to the abusive authority and dangerous conditions apparent in many private boot camps. Like the proprietors of any business, boot camp operators should be required to register their camps with the state and meet strict safety regulations for housing, food and training drills. They should also be required to have medical staff on site with the authority to stop activities they deem harmful for camp participants. Boot camps should not be allowed to use “the Army does it” as a blanket justification for exercises and discipline, since the 13- and 14-year-olds sent to the camps differ greatly from 18- and 19-year-old military recruits screened by a physical before being allowed to begin basic training. And each state should require and conduct periodic inspections of boot camps for compliance with the law.

Thus far, Minnesota’s Challenge Incarceration Program boot camps have been hailed as a success by many graduates and officials. But with the potential for abuse inherent in such a program, the Legislature should closely monitor the program and avoid what Arizona, Ohio and the family of Tony Haynes learned at a tragic price.