by Dr. Christina Johns
One of my students, 23 now and ready to graduate with a B.S. in Criminal Justice, told me that at one time he was a career juvenile offender with a rap sheet longer than most adults. Neither juvenile supervision nor repeated stays at detention centers had done anything to change his habits or values. At the age of 18, this landed him in a boot camp for youthful offenders. But not even this changed his outlook.
"It was a gig." He said late one afternoon sitting in my office. "It was just like any other gig. You figure out what the people in charge want and you do it. That way, you're out on the street sooner. But Mr. Warren, (as we will call him), was too bright, to talented and just too alive, not to be noticed.
A local university president, doing a publicity stop at the boot camp singled him out and asked him if he was interested in a four-year college education. Mr. Warren knew what he was supposed to say and he said it. "Yes."
Now, four years later, he's a different person. "But, it wasn't the boot camp." He said to me, shaking his head.
"So what was it?" I asked.
"Getting out of that environment. Getting off the street for long enough to see that there was another world out there. It wasn't the boot camp that changed me, it was the university."
During all the time Mr. Warren had spent in and out of trouble, in and out of one type of juvenile sanction or the other, his attitudes and values never changed. The goals were fast money, fast cars, and expensive clothes. "At college," he said. "I started to see that there were other things. I was around people who valued learning and education. And, you know what? I started to see that this was the best gig of all. But, I don't go back." He added.
"Back where?" I asked.
"Back home. Back to the streets. And I don't let them come down here. I don't want to be around those guys that think like that anymore. It's too easy to sink back into it."
Boot camps were the rage for a decade. The public liked seeing delinquents marched around and yelled at in the evening news sound bites and politicians liked providing the public with what it found satisfying. But nobody knew if they "worked." Nobody knew that they were any more effective than the traditional methods of treating juvenile delinquency and many criminologists suspected that they were set ups for some real abusive behavior.
Turns out these doubters just might be right. The New York Times recently reported on Sunday that some 52 boot camps around the country housing some 4,500 juveniles are being "scrutinized because of instances of excessive force." Some notorious examples are a 14-year-old girl in South Dakota who was placed in a boot camp for shoplifting and then died from heat exhaustion after her drill instructors decided that her complaints were just malingering. Last year, a sixteen-year-old in Arizona died after being punished for discipline violations.
As if this weren't bad enough, the United States Justice Department recently released a report in which the stinging conclusion was that "the paramilitary boot camp model is not only ineffective, but harmful" to juvenile offenders.
Consequently, Georgia has begun to phase out its five boot camps. Colorado, North Dakota and Arizona have also ended their programs. Florida and California are scaling their programs back.
A lawsuit several years ago in Florida, claiming gratuitous physical violence and humiliation of offenders by overzealous guards was eventually dropped, but laid the groundwork for future cases.
The juvenile justice system deals with lives, young lives, lives that can be turned around. It's high time we stopped experimenting with programs that we have no idea work, cost us a good deal of money and can drive juvenile offenders further into brutality and crime.