‘Boot Camp’ Option for Young Drug Offenders Prompts Concern

By Lisa Jennings — November 15, 1989 8 min read

The growing interest in highly regimented, physically challenging incarceration programs for youthful drug offenders has prompted concern among juvenile-justice advocates across the nation.

The latest program to raise eyebrows is a state plan in Maryland to create a modified “boot camp” for boys arrested on drug charges throughout the state.

But even before the Maryland announcement, experts in the field note, several public officials, including President Bush, had expressed interest in the idea.

Earlier this year, for instance, Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit won preliminary approval from the city council to establish a highly disciplined boot camp for juvenile drug offenders. And in Boston, Mayor Raymond Flynn has raised the possibility of instituting a similar program there.

The problem with such boot-camp programs, juvenile-justice advocates warn, is that they have not yet been proven effective--for either juveniles or adults. And, they caution, such intensive intervention may end up doing more harm than good to vulnerable youths whose lives have already been turned inside out as a result of drugs, abuse, poverty, and fractured family lives.

“The military learned a long time ago that the boot-camp approach doesn’t work with troubled youths,” noted Lloyd W. Mixdorf, director of juvenile programs for the American Correctional Association. “It only works for people who can stand the stress without falling apart. Juvenile programs must be more sensitive to the personalities of kids.”

Marci Brown, a spokesman for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, contended that the goal of any rehabilitation program should be to provide “a more humane element’’ for juveniles.

In the most successful rehabilitation programs, both experts agreed, that “humane” element is education.

The growing interest in alternative incarceration programs for juveniles parallels a dramatic increase in the popularity of military-style boot-camp facilities for first-time adult offenders.

Mr. Mixdorf said much of the renewed interest in alternatives to incarceration can be traced to the nation’s growing frustration with its inability to tackle the drug problem. At the same time, he said, such approaches are seen as one way to help alleviate already-overcrowded jails.

At least 12 states have developed boot-camp programs for youthful, first-time adult offenders. The first state-run boot camps were created in Georgia and Oklahoma in 1983.

Modeled after military boot-camp training, the programs typically last three to six months, Mr. Mixdorf said, and target felons ages 17 to 25; sometimes teenagers as young as 15 are sentenced to such programs.

The idea behind boot-camp programs is that first offenders are “shocked” with a heavy dose of discipline and intimidation to help them turn their lives around. Most offenders are allowed to “volunteer” for boot camp, as an alternative to going to jail for a longer period.

At Camp Sauble, a state-operated boot camp in Michigan, for example, inmates’ days are filled with aerobic exercise, marching and drills, and long hours of physical labor, directed by supervisors who demand complete subservience, according to Bruce L. Curtis, a deputy warden at the camp.

“We want them to feel we have total control over them, both mentally and physically,” Mr. Curtis said. “We strip them of everything--all their street pride--and then we start building them up again.”

Mr. Curtis acknowledged, however, that it may be several years before corrections officials can offer significant evidence of success.

So far, he said, in the program’s first year of operation, about 25 percent of those who have started the program have quit before they could “graduate” and another 6 percent have failed. Those who cannot complete the program must complete their sentence in jail.

What most boot camps ignore, according to Mr. Mixdorf and others, is evidence that education--and not fear and intimidation--can be a much more effective means of rehabilitating troubled youths.

Ms. Brown of the crime council said that, while few hard data are available to back up their claims, many juvenile-justice advocates are convinced that an education can provide youths with positive options. “And that in itself is a preventative mechanism,” she says.

In addition, she argued, many troubled youths become involved in crime because they had behavioral problems in school and were expelled. With special help, they can learn to cope with society, she added.

Plus, Ms. Brown said, a specialized education is often a much less expensive option than the estimated $25,000 a year it costs to keep a juvenile in jail. “For that much money, why not just send them to Stanford?” she asked.

Mr. Mixdorf noted that supporters of boot-camp programs are generally bucking the juvenile-justice reform movement that began with the adoption of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.

That law sought to remove juveniles from adult incarceration programs, and to create treatments specific to youths. Most often, education is a key element of such programs.

Among those who advocate the use of boot camps for juvenile drug offenders is President Bush.

In announcing his battle plan for the war on drugs in September, Mr. Bush advocated the use of “military-style boot camps, with their rigorous regimes and austere conditions,” to both punish and rehabilitate juveniles arrested on drug charges.

“Young offenders in particular must be confronted with penalties that both deter them from future drug use and embarrass them among their peers,” he said.

It is that philosophy that brought Mayor Young into the circle of supporters of the boot-camp concept.

“The Mayor believes that a little discipline is good for people, and he’s not afraid of hurting these kids’ feelings,” said Robert Berg, a spokesman for Mr. Young.

“What we’re doing now with juveniles just doesn’t seem to be working,” he added. “The Mayor thinks that these kids are salvageable, but they’ve got to be turned around, and this just may be the thing that can do it.”

Although the Detroit program has not yet been designed, Mr. Berg said the city council has approved $500,000 to begin planning two boot camps--one for juvenile drug offenders under age 17, and another for first-time adult offenders ages 17 to 25. The state Department of Corrections will operate both camps.

City officials are trying to find a site for the camps, Mr. Berg said, adding that it will probably be north of the city, “where they can experience a little cold weather to chill out hot bloods.”

The juvenile program, he noted, will also include an education and job-training component.

Other juvenile facilities in the state have already attempted to emulate the Camp Sauble model.

Michael C. Unger, supervisor of the Muskegon County Youth Home in Muskegon, said officials adopted a boot-camp-style regimen for the incarcerated juveniles there after visiting Camp Sauble earlier this year.

An emphasis on physical labor and discipline has replaced the previous program, which he described as “virtually a day-care center for juvenile felons.”

Mr. Unger said the concept, though still new, seems to work. “The kids don’t like all the marching and all the work, and they don’t want to come back,” he said.

Officials in Maryland argue that there is a way to strike a balance between those who complain that officials are not tough enough on youth crime, and those who support rehabilitation of young criminals through education and individual care.

Their program, which received the preliminary approval of the state board of public works late last month, will attempt to combine hard work and physical exercise with education in a highly structured setting.

Dubbed the “Stress Challenge” program, it will focus on boys, ages 14 to 18, who are labeled delinquent for drug-related offenses.

The boys will spend an average of four months in a secure--most likely isolated--setting under intense supervision, according to Christine Plater, a spokesman for the department of juvenile services.

They will spend their days engaged in rigorous physical exercise, drug and alcohol treatment, and counseling, as well as schoolwork and job-skills training.

Ms. Plater said the program will be designed to avoid the more controversial elements of boot camps, such as “pressure and intimidation,” and will attempt to focus instead on “confidence building.”

It will also include a strong “after care” program that will help the youths return to their communities, she said.

In Massachusetts, the state most often cited as a model for juvenile-justice reform, corrections officials agree that it takes a lot more than marching to ensure that young criminals stay out of jail.

Since the mid-1980’s, the system there has been made up of small, community-based treatment facilities that are operated on the concept that “delinquency is directly related to education.”

Edward J. Loughran, commissioner of youth services, has created a system that he believes embodies the antithesis of President Bush’s “get tough on crime” message.

Such language, Mr. Loughran said, “is a way to guarantee a whole new bumper crop of juvenile delinquents in the world.”

“Locking up juvenile criminals together can only be a way to teach kids more about crime,” he said.

But he noted that Mayor Flynn of Boston has approached him with the idea of setting up a juvenile boot camp program there.

“I’ve tried to show him that we have alternatives that work,” Mr. Loughran explained. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t have discipline or that kids shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, but you’ve got to give these kids an education.”

Mr. Loughran is highly critical of the public school system’s willingness to “kick out” students with discipline problems--who often end up criminals in his care.

His department, he says, is designed to make up for what the schools lack in dealing with troubled youths’ education.

Juvenile offenders spend about five hours each day in classes that attempt to keep pace with the public-school curriculum.

Because most of the students are considered learning-disabled, the department also runs a $600,000 Chapter 1 program that provides one teacher for every four students to offer concentrated remedial attention.

Because of the Chapter 1 program, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services in June became the first agency other than a school district to be recognized by the U.S. Education Department for exemplary achievements in educating juvenile offenders.

While services are strained, Mr. Loughran said, officials will continue to avoid such “quick fix” approaches as boot-camp programs.

“It’s really the long term versus the short term,” he said, “and we think the long-term approach will be much more cost effective in the end.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘Boot Camp’ Option for Young Drug Offenders Prompts Concern