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 th...
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...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."
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