Last month, authorities exhumed the body of a 14-year-old boy who had died in a Florida juvenile boot camp, conducted an autopsy, and found that he did not die from natural causes, as the local medical examiner had initially ruled. Instead, Martin Lee Anderson’s death might have resulted from being punched and restrained by guards at a boot camp run by the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.
The finding was another critical blow to the very concept of juvenile boot camps, an idea that is sinking under the weight of abuse scandals and weak evaluations after emerging as the hot juvenile justice trend of the early 1990s. Florida, which once had nine camps, is down to four – a dismantling that mirrors the national retreat.
“They’re a dying breed,” says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “They’ve lost a tremendous amount of political support.”
Even at the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which once funded new boot camps, spokeswoman Joan LaRocca says the agency doesn’t recommend funding them any more “because research has proven their ineffectiveness in dealing with juvenile offenders.”
Boot camp supporters are hanging on, perhaps nowhere more than in Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is seeking more money for them. “Florida is still committed to boot camps,” says Florida Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Cynthia Lorenzo. “It’s certainly not the perfect program for every youth, but for some they are a good option.”
Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells oversees one of the boot camps and says they help youth. “The educational components of Florida’s boot camps are unequaled by other state juvenile justice programs,” he says.
The domain of modern adult corrections systems since 1983, boot camps were adapted by some juvenile systems in the early 1990s after a sharp rise in juvenile arrests. The number of arrests per 100,000 youth (ages 10 to 17) rose from 6,750 in 1983 to 8,031 in 1990, according to OJJDP.
Boot camps use a shock incarceration approach on moderate offenders. But a 1994 study by Doris MacKenzie, widely considered the foremost analyst of boot camps, said little if any evidence existed to support the notion that adult boot camps were effective at cutting recidivism. While participants frequently reported positive experiences in the camps, MacKenzie reported, their recidivism rates were comparable to those of inmates at other types of facilities.
In Manatee County, Wells established Florida’s first juvenile boot camp in 1993. “I was asked to by the state juvenile justice system, because the juvenile crime rate here was skyrocketing,” he says.
Many juvenile justice advocates questioned the logic from the beginning. “In the military, boot camps work because then they [soldiers] have a job after” they leave, Krisberg says. “But it doesn’t help if a kid has no place to live. Do they have a job? [Boot camps] don’t address most factors that contribute to recidivism.”
Yet Democratic President Bill Clinton pushed the idea, which seemed to offer the perfect political combination of being tough on crime without sticking kids in harsh and expensive long-term lock-ups. “Conservatives loved it, and liberals thought it was a hustle to get out of more stringent incarceration,” Krisberg says.
In 1992, OJJDP funded three camps – in Mobile, Ala., Cleveland and Denver – to see how the idea worked. But Congress didn’t wait for evaluations. In September 1995, the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs provided $21 million for 44 boot camp grants. Of that, $15.6 million went to 24 juvenile camps.
“These programs can get some good results,” Yitzak Bakal told Youth Today in 1995, after his North American Family Institute received a contract to operate Cleveland’s Camp Roulston boot camp. “Kids like this structure. They talk about the fact that, for the first time in their lives, they have been productive.”
The nation had 15 juvenile boot camps in 1994, according to the Koch Crime Institute, based in Topeka, Kan. By 1999, Koch counted 53, with a total of 4,500 beds.
By the late 1990s, however, evaluation results began to dim the boot camp fervor. (See “Boot Camps Lose Early Swagger,” November 1999).
The initial results at OJJDP’s three boot camps, evaluated in 1997 by Caliber Associates, did not reinforce early hopes that the approach would scare kids straight. The Denver and Mobile programs produced recidivism rates comparable with those of youth released from other juvenile facilities. In a study of youth in Cleveland’s Camp Roulston, though, 72 percent committed new offenses after release, compared with 50 percent of youth released from other Ohio juvenile facilities.
There were some pluses: High percentages of youth at the Mobile and Cleveland camps improved at least one grade level on standardized tests. But one paragraph in Caliber’s report, “Boot Camps for Juvenile Offenders,” encapsulated the common problems: “All encountered difficulties in their public-private partnerships; all had difficulty in establishing facilities; all experienced significant staff turnover; and all learned how difficult aftercare is to implement.”
All three of the original camps have closed. The Mobile camp, run in part by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Mobile, reopened for a while in Prichard, Ala. The state’s department of youth services operates camps in Prattville and Thomasville.
More recent evaluations have done little to change initial assessments:
A 2005 study in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency compared the arrest records of California Youth Authority youth sent to boot camps with those of youth committed to other youth authority facilities. The study found no significant differences between the two groups in total arrests or the amount of time until the first arrest after release from detention.
A 2005 meta-analysis, led by MacKenzie, looked at 32 studies that compared recidivism rates at boot camps to control groups. The findings were familiar: Half of the studies favored boot camps and half favored the comparison facilities. Favorable recidivism rates were found at some camps in Florida, Illinois and Louisiana.
“Justifying the adoption or continued use of boot camps should not … be made on claims of their potential to reduce crime within a community,” the analysis said.
More damaging, perhaps, has been a continuing series of scandals, many involving the sometimes fatal abuse of youth. Among them:
• Last year Charles Long, director of an Arizona boot camp run by America’s Buffalo Soldiers Re-enactors Association, was convicted of reckless manslaughter for an incident in 2001, when a 14-year-old died of exhaustion after working in 111-degree heat for five hours.
• Last month, the Swan Valley Youth Academy in Montana closed after the state Department of Public Health found 19 licensing violations that included conducting excessive exercise drills and failing to report a suicide attempt. Swan Valley’s operator, the Denver-based Cornerstone Programs, no longer operates boot camps.
• The most recent boot camp fatality occurred in January in Florida, when the 14-year-old Anderson died after an altercation with guards at the Bay County facility. A medical examiner initially ruled that his death was related to sickle cell trait, but a second autopsy confirmed that Anderson did not die of natural causes.
His death sparked an investigation into practices at Bay County and prompted some criminal justice experts to predict the closure of all Florida camps.
“The evidence is so clear that these programs don’t work that there will be reconsideration,” says Thomas Stromberg, dean of criminology at Florida State University, who in February testified about boot camps before the Florida House of Representatives’ criminal justice appropriations committee.
“I’ll be surprised if Florida’s boot camps survive. They not only don’t do what they are supposed to, but they have all the negative consequences.”
Boot camp supporters say the abuse of youth is not an inherent element of the programs, but a result of misbehavior by some staff members. But many of the camps seem to skate close to the line between toughness and abuse, with an in-your-face approach that includes barking drill sergeants and strenuous physical activity.
The tough atmosphere is so ingrained that when a Baltimore Sun reporter and photographer were granted official access to Maryland’s three boot camps in 1999, they saw the staff yell at and even kick the youths.
In Florida, the Bay County camp closed after Anderson’s death. Another camp, operated by the Martin County Sheriff’s Department, announced that it will close after this year due to insufficient funding.
The boot camp concept works well when carried out correctly, Wells says. He points to the work of his colleague, Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder, whose camp received the second-highest score of 158 residential youth programs on Florida’s Performance Accountability Measure, which factors in recidivism and cost-effectiveness. Three other boot camps, including the one run by Wells, ranked among the lowest 15 on that measure.
While advocates for alternatives to boot camps call for increased investments in educational services for youth, supporters in Florida say that’s where their camps excel.
Manatee County takes two groups of juveniles into its boot camp each year. All four groups of juveniles entering in 2004 and 2005 increased their average learning level by two grades, based on a state test of reading, writing, math and factual knowledge, according to test results provided by the sheriff’s office. Those results showed that 11 of the 50 juveniles increased their average grade level by more than three, and that 80 youth have obtained a GED while at the boot camp.
“Academic advancement is the focus of our camps,” Wells says. “The initial shock intake only lasts a few days. Then it’s basically nonconfrontational.”
He admits to problems with how the boot camp model has been applied. “I can’t say recidivism rates have lived up to our expectations,” he says. “I blame that to some degree on having higher expectations than we should have. And [lack of] after-care is the other big reason.”
While the legislature may heed the advice of Stromberg and others to stop funding the remaining camps next year, “the governor is not ready to give up on them yet,” says Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association. The association counts the Martin County boot camp among its members.
Governor Bush’s pending 2006 supplemental funding request included $1.5 million in salary enhancements for employees of the state’s four boot camps, which are run by sheriffs, and just $7.5 million for the state’s 153 other juvenile residential treatment centers.
A complete phase-out of boot camps would be a shame, Wells says. “Juvenile justice advocates have great intentions. But if you’re going to question programs, you tell me what works, and I’ll be the first to try it.
“Prior to 1993, their idea was counseling and cuddling and nurturing. … I know what happened then. Juvenile crime skyrocketed.”Associate Editor John Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sheriff Charlie Wells
Doris MacKenzie, Professor
“Examining the Effectiveness of Boot Camps: A Randomized Experiment With a
“Effects of Correctional Boot Camps on Offending,” 2005
“Boot Camps for Juvenile Offenders,” 1997