Boot Camps Get a Kick in the Head

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By David J. Krajicek

Military-style boot camps for juvenile offenders have proven to be no more effective and no less costly than traditional corrective measures. Now, they may be losing one other critical selling point: their political appeal.

Politicians from President Bill Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush have touted juvenile boot camps under tough-on-crime rubrics. But a series of abuse scandals and deaths at juvenile facilities has sparked negative publicity for politicians, calling into question the conventional wisdom that there is no downside to talking tough on crime.

Some predict that the latest setback - the closing of Maryland's boot camps after a damning Baltimore Sun series about abuse by staff at one of the camps - may be the tipping point for the boot camp fad. The December series documented kicking, punching and body slams by guards. Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the D.C.-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, was quoted as calling the behavior "state-sanctioned child abuse."

Gov. Parris Glendening closed one boot camp and stripped two others of all military trappings, and fired or forced resignations from five subordinates. Juvenile justice advocates, politicians and the media criticized Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the state's juvenile justice czar, for lax oversight.

It may be too early to declare boot camps a political pariah, said Mary Fairchild, program manager for juvenile justice with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislators, a bipartisan organization that provides background policy information to lawmakers.  "But we get a lot of information requests on boot camps, and I am sure they [state legislators] are going to take note of this," Fairchild said. "Legislators across the country are more and more interested in results, and policymakers are now being told that boot camps can be ineffective or even harmful to those who go through them. The combination of these things - the Maryland case, cost issues, recidivism - may lead lawmakers to view boot camps differently in the future than they have in the past."

The Shine Fades

Some states already are backing away. ["Boot Camps Lose Early Swagger," Youth Today, November, 1999.] In December Georgia's juvenile justice commissioner, Orlando Martinez, announced that the massive youth boot camp program there would be shut down. Georgia, which invested heavily in boot camps under former Gov. Zell Miller, had nine juvenile camps with more than 1,000 beds, about one-quarter of the national total. Texas was second, with about 500 beds in eight camps.

Martinez cited high costs and disappointing recidivism, but Georgia also had been criticized in a 1998 U.S. Justice Department report that said boot camp guards there routinely used extreme corporal punishment, often injuring youths.

Barry Holman, director of research and public policy with the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va., said Martinez deserves praise for instituting a non-punitive "work camp" that keys on occupational training and education, not physical intimidation and exercise. Conversely, Holman said, "It's only fair that politicians, bureaucrats or those of us who work in advocacy who proposed and supported these boot camp programs all should be held accountable."

He predicted a continued decline in boot camps as a result of the negative publicity and potential political consequences from the Maryland case.

Ironically, Lt. Gov. Townsend's staff had pitched the boot camp story idea to the Sun in 1998, when she was running for re-election, expecting a positive portrayal of a program that she had championed. Reporter Kevin Richissin said he spent a day at camp but decided a long-term look would be more informative. What began as a story about troubled teenagers evolved into an investigative series after he witnessed brutality by squad leaders.

"I still don't know exactly what was going through their minds," he said. "This was not a hidden-camera thing. My photographer is standing there taking pictures, and I'm standing there with my notebook out while this is going on."

Bush a Fan

Abuses by staff have haunted juvenile boot camps since their inception in the early 1990s. Abuse at a Mobile, Ala., federal Office of Juvenile Justice prototype, administered by the local Boys & Girls Club, was so rampant in its first year of operation in 1992 that the facility was closed for three months.

Criminal charges or civil lawsuits related to juvenile boot camps are pending in at least seven states. In 1998 the Arizona Boys Ranch, in Oracle, lost its license temporarily when a 16-year-old boy died during forced exercise. One of the workers was charged with manslaughter. Last July an overweight girl (5-foot-4, 224 pounds) died following a forced 2.7-mile walk and run at the South Dakota Training School in Plankinton. Elected officials are being targeted in lawsuits in those cases, and both bureaucrats and politicians are being scrutinized in a civil rights investigation into Maryland boot camps.

"This should be a call to juvenile corrections authorities and elected officials in 49 other states to review their policies and review their oversight of what's being done that might be contrary to written or formal policy," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Jordan Riak, founder of Project NoSpank, an anti-corporal punishment group based in Alamo, Calif., said he sees "a trend toward politicians waking up on this issue as a result of the constantly recurring pattern of violence against children in these boot camps." Riak, who maintains a website ( that catalogues deaths and injuries at schools and juvenile facilities, said advocates are carefully watching the Bush-for-president campaign.

Bush is a juvenile boot camp enthusiast. Texas is building 18 new secure juvenile facilities, some of them boot camps, and Bush has said he advocates "places of strict discipline and punishment that offer hope of turning around young lives." On his campaign website, Bush credits his initiatives, including juvenile boot camps and a "tough love" approach ("discipline and love go hand in hand") for a decline in juvenile crime in Texas.

Todd McClellan, a spokesman at Bush campaign headquarters in Austin, said the candidate is not rethinking his support of boot camps. "Gov. Bush believes boot camps are one tool of an effective strategy to combat juvenile crime, and he believes judges should have options to send juveniles to boot camps if they feel a tough love approach will help deter them from entering into a life of crime," McClellan said. He said Bush is not ready to say whether he would encourage increased use of boot camps on a national level.