Civilian Boot Camps Lack Intended Kick

Civilian Boot Camps Lack Intended Kick – Brief Article

Woody West

A few years ago “boot camps” for juveniles and first-offenders were high fashion in the criminal-justice system. Sending young predators to tautly disciplined boot camps for five or six months, instead of to conventional facilities, could reduce recidivism and reclaim apprentice thugs. So went the reasoning.

The media, of course, embraces “progressive” novelty with brass-band irrepressibility, and reams of newsprint and lengthy TV segments were devoted to this innovative penology. Well, in less than a decade, the “boot-camp” fad has deflated like a balloon in a cactus patch.

In recent months, state after state has retreated — drastically. Georgia is phasing out its camps; Colorado, North Dakota and Arizona have ended their programs; Florida and California are scaling back their ambitious lurch into the brave, new notion. In Maryland, which launched its boot-camp program under the enthusiastic sponsorship of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the FBI now is investigating complaints of physical abuse of participants. Five state officials have been given, so to speak, the boot.

By 1997, more than 27,000 teenagers were passing through 54 camps across the country each year. It was becoming obvious, however, that the experiment was deficient. A national study of recidivism by the Koch Crime Institute in Kansas (according to the New York Times) found that recidivism rates for those who had been through boot camps ranged from 64 percent to 75 percent, while those from traditional detention centers were 63 percent to 71 percent. A Justice Department study concluded that “the paramilitary boot-camp model is not only ineffective, but harmful.” Whoops, there goes another rubbertree plant!

The fatal flaw in the “boot-camp” gimmick should have been obvious from the start: The civilian adaptations could only superficially resemble the military model, the historically demanding Marine Corps recruit training.

But there’s no damming the flood waters of political expediency when citizens boil at government’s inability to prevent their being mugged and burgled and otherwise brutally preyed upon. Thus, endorsed by the usual experts and vividly publicized, the boot camps were apishly copied by the politically correct state bureaucracies.

Not possible of replication in the criminal-justice version is that the majority of Marine boots who endure three months of discipline unparalleled in civilian society undergo the experience because they choose to be there. They desire to prove themselves against a famously tough standard. Individual motivation is critical.

Contrast this with youthful felons who simply made what seemed the least nasty of unpalatable choices: Most prisons in most states, including juvenile facilities, are not places of great allure. So the savvier among the young knuckleheads were not averse to a shorter stretch in “boot camp.”

A few of those who thus chose doubtless were sobered by the imposed regimen. Many, however, if not most, of today’s young criminals are sufficiently streetwise that they can con a cat out of her kittens. They could convince the court-system social workers (who in a therapeutic society don’t need much convincing) that three months doing push-ups and being harried by “drill instructors” would shape them up as exemplars of citizenship. Then, once back on familiar turf, the statistics testify that the majority of these grads smirk at the game they ran on the system and take up illegally where they left off.

The Marine Corps knows how complicated boot camp is and how judiciously this mechanism must be tended, far beyond what is the usual norm in modern penology. Power tends to corrupt, as we used to know, and from time to time the Marine Corps has had to recalibrate its machinery (after a drill instructor, for notorious instance, led a punitive night march into a South Carolina swamp and came back with fewer recruits than he started with). When it is alleged, as in Maryland, that staff members physically abused some of those in boot camp, it should amaze no one, but it has — and politicians and soft-centered reformers respond with outrage. The governmental sponsors of the project failed to pay the vital and consistent attention necessary with such an experiment.

Marine boot camp, and serious military training generally, must rely on vastly different mentalities and modes than does juvenile justice. This reality somehow escaped notice of the intellectual architects of the civilian programs.

In short, too much eagerness and too little reflection guaranteed the eventual failure of the “boot-camp” notion. But it did permit the liberals who have presided over the creaky criminal-justice system of the last three or four decades to feel good about themselves. And there will be no accountability — bet on it.

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