People are increasingly frustrated with the amount and the violence of the crime going on around them. When a 14-year-old walks into a high school and sprays bullets into a prayer group of students, killing three, injuring others and terrorizing an entire school, you have to wonder what's gone wrong.
The response, for the past two decades, to what has evidently gone wrong has been the "get tough on crime" movement - characterized by mandatory sentencing guidelines; the decreasing use, and in some cases, the elimination of parole, longer and harsher sentences, more prisons and other measures to "crack down on crime."
Boot camps were developed as part of this "get tough on crime" movement. But it is very difficult to determine whether or not these boot camps are actually effective at decreasing crime or rehabilitating criminals. Consequently, as usual, in the Criminal Justice field, we are pursuing policy in the dark.
Boot camps were part of the "get tough on crime" movement, but some were also designed to function as alternatives to incarceration. In some states, for example, boot camps are used for offenders considered too serious to place on probation - offenders thought to need more supervision than probation provides. In other words, these offenders are the hard end of the probation pool.
In other states, boot camps are used to decrease prison overcrowding and therefore contain the soft end (or less serious members) of the prison population.
This difference in the type of offender selected for participation in the boot camps, make it extremely difficult to evaluate the "success" or "effectiveness" of the boot camps in general.
First, as we noted, the population of one boot camp may be entirely different from the population in another boot camp and therefore the success or failure of the one can't be compared to the other.
Second, not just the participants, but the boot camps themselves can be very different. The only criteria a particular program must meet to be called a Boot Camp is that it have a para-military style modeled on the boot camp training that military recruits receive. But, after you get past this one characteristic, boot camps vary greatly. Some boot camps, for example, have drug treatment programs (voluntary and involuntary), counseling, psychological therapy, vocational skills training, etc. Other boot camps focus almost entirely on the drill, or paramilitary component.
But suppose you have one boot camp with a para-military regime, vocational counseling, and drug treatment, and another with a para-military regime and vocational counseling only, and another boot camp with a para-military regime, vocational counseling and psychological counseling. How can you tell, when comparing these camps, which of the components (or programs) is bringing about the "success?" You can't. It might be that vocational counseling is bringing about all the success in the three and therefore, you could merely do vocational counseling and get rid of the other components entirely.
But here comes the third problem: what do we mean by "effective" or "successful?"
What is the measure of the success of a boot camp? Recidivism is usually used as the measure of success of criminal justice programs, but then recidivism itself can be defined in many ways. Is it committing another crime, or failing to complete the boot camp? Is it measured for six months or two years? These different choices help determine what the "success" rate of the camp will be.
A fourth problem (and I speak from personal experience here) is that most personnel working in a program or the department running the program have a vested interest in having the program appear to work and saying loudly and often that the program does work. Nobody wants their job eliminated, so even if the personnel involved can determine no effect from their program, they would be unlikely to say so.
Sometimes policy makers, desperate for results, cite changes in attitudes of boot camp residents as an indicator of "success":, i.e., participants become more positive about themselves and the boot camp experience as they are leaving. But, a boot camp participant would have to be a real idiot to fill out a questionnaire with a whole host of negative attitudes when he's trying to get out.
And, even if there are real changes in attitudes, attitudes don't always imply behavior. An inmate might feel more positive about himself and the boot camp and go out and slit somebody's throat the next day.
So, if we don't really know whether or not boot camps are "effective" or "successful" why are we continuing to pour money into them?
Some criminologists argue that boot camps are a fad, and that their main purpose is not so much to rehabilitate offenders, but to fulfill a societal need. The argument is that boot camps fulfill a psychological need within society to feel that something "tough" is being done with offenders. If you think about it, when ever you see media coverage of boot camps, you normally see a man yelling into the face of a juvenile or other offender, chastising him, dressing him down, reading him the riot act. A typical graphic recently used by the Tallahassee Democrat in an article about the boot camps was the outline of a large, military male, leaning toward and pointing his finger at a smaller, slump shouldered, boot camp participant.
"That's what they all need." You can hear the satisfied arm chair "get tough on crimers" saying. "Discipline. Punishment." "Give 'em hell."