Pros and Cons of the Use of Juvenile Boot Camps in the United States

Pros and Cons of the Use of Juvenile Boot Camps in the United States

Introduction

Nowadays, the issue of juvenile boot camps is extremely topical in the USA due to the heated debate about their effectiveness, reasonability of their use, as well as danger that they pose to mental and physical well-being of juveniles. Boot camps both for adults and juveniles were very popular in the 1980s – 1990s when there was a surge in the crime rates and people generally believed that boot camps offered a viable alternative to prisons and other rehabilitation facilities. As a rule, boot camps are viewed as a milder punishment than imprisonment in some residential facility, but a more restrictive one than a mere probation period. Juvenile boot camps have proponents and critics and both sides offer valid and convincing arguments in favor of their position. However, the state support of juvenile boot camps has significantly decreased over the years, partially due to an increasing amount of incidents and accidents in these facilities that attract media attention and criticism. Besides, there have appeared a number of alternative programs that incorporate some elements of juvenile boot camps without the detrimental effect ascribed to the military doctrine promoted by boot camps proponents. Nevertheless, juvenile boot camps, including both private and state-sponsored ones, are still in use today and there are many people who advocate for their further use and even expansion. Therefore, it seems valid and reasonable to review and analyze pros and cons of the use of juvenile boot camps in the Unites States with a special focus on arguments that are most often suggested by both sides. After an in-depth analysis of credible literature sources on the issue under consideration, juvenile boot camps seem to be a rather outdated phenomenon of the US justice system since they do not display a convincing rate of effectiveness and recidivism prevention, hence implying that they should be either completely transformed or gradually abolished in favor of more efficient treatment and rehabilitation programs devised on the basis of comprehensive studies of juvenile delinquency and susceptibility to various intervention and influence techniques.

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General Overview of the Use of Juvenile Boot Camps in the United States

Due to a wide variety of various juvenile boot camps, there is no uniform definition of this phenomenon. However, according to the majority of studies, most boot camps have the following elements in common: “separation of boot camp participants from regular prison inmates”, “the participants’ perception that boot camp is an alternative to a longer term of confinement”, and “some hard labor” (Peters et al., 1997). The other definition provided by the Office of Justice Programs includes the following: “participation by nonviolent offenders only”, “a residential phase of 6 months or less”, “a regimented schedule stressing discipline, physical training, and work”, “participation by inmates in appropriate education opportunities, job training, and substance abuse counseling or treatment”, and “provision of aftercare services” (Peters et al., 1997). Military doctrine is an integral part of all juvenile boot camps as the program resembles that of military training and harsh military conditions “with rigorous in-take procedures, shaved heads, drill and ceremony, physical training, immediate physical punishment for misbehavior (e.g. push-ups), and graduation ceremonies” (Wilson, MacKenzie, & Mitchell, 2003). The first juvenile boot camp was opened in Louisiana in 1985 (National Institute of Justice, n.d.). The idea of boot camps for juvenile delinquents became especially popular with the public in the 1990s when officials reported an unprecedented rise in the crime rates. However, gradually they have lost their appeal due to numerous reports of their ineffectiveness and dangers they pose to juveniles. Thus, when juvenile boot camps were operating in 30 states in 1995, they remained open only in 11 states in 2009 (National Institute of Justice, n.d.). Besides, some of them like Camp Summit Boot Camp in northwestern Indiana are planned to be closed in the nearest future with their participants being transferred to other rehabilitation programs (Associated Press, 2014). One of the reasons why juvenile boot camps have suffered a significant decline in number is the repeal of §5667f of the Juvenile Justice and Detention Prevention Act by the US Congress in 2002, hence “eliminating a specific grant incentive program for states to open new juvenile boot camps” (Muscar, 2008).

Juvenile boot camps are often referred to as intensive incarceration programs or shock programs and pursue the goal of breaking a juvenile through harsh conditions and physical activities in order to transform him/her into a normal person without criminal tendencies and with a capacity for self-regulation, self-discipline, and self-improvement. Most camps are either male or female only and juveniles enter them in groups called cadets or platoons, with which they afterwards live and train. An obligatory element of juvenile boot camps is academic education, though the quality of studies may differ. Juveniles are admitted to boot camps by court orders after committing non-violent crimes, by advice of their parole officers, due to recommendation of social services, or by enrollment of their parents to the program. Some camps have severe admission conditions that are passed only by about a half of candidates, for example, juveniles with suicidal tendencies are usually rejected. Juvenile boot camps may be either non-residential when juveniles spend nights at home or residential when they spend full-time service for the term of up to six months alienated from their families, friends, and communities. Despite some differences in programs and conditions, the overwhelming majority of juvenile boot camps share a wide range of similarities, which allows generalizing their pros and cons with a view to determining whether their continued operation is reasonable and justified.

Pros of the Use of Juvenile Boot Camps in the United States

According to proponents, juvenile boot camps are quite successful and efficient in the United States and, though they do not always reach the set goals, they are efficient in rehabilitating juvenile delinquents and assisting them in gaining self-control. Thus, proponents cite a wide range of advantages of juvenile boot camps, hence advocating not closing them but investing more into these programs instead. The current section of the paper provides a brief overview of pros most often mentioned in regard to the use of juvenile boot camps in the USA.

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It should be noted that the choice whether or not to put a juvenile into a boot camp does not always depend on the parents and the juvenile. Although some boot camps require voluntary admission of juveniles, most of them accept all available ways of admission. Parents may decide to send their problematic child to a boot camp for shock rehabilitation, but in the majority of cases this choice is made either by a probation officer or court (Laws.com, n.d.). Court decision may be implemented through front-end sentencing and back-end sentencing (Laws.com, n.d.). Anyway, proponents suppose that a juvenile boot camp is better in any case than some residential facility or prison as it provides education, training, treatment, and counseling, and it does not have an adverse impact on the juvenile’s record and, therefore, does not inhibiting his/her chances of non-criminal future.

Proponents claim that “militaristic atmosphere, a rigorous and rigid daily schedule that includes physical training or labor, and strict discipline” are integral components of juveniles’ successful rehabilitation and transformation (Wilson et al., 2003). They refute any suppositions that the shock therapy practiced by most boot camps may be harmful as they view it as the only possible way to prevent future crimes and rehabilitate juveniles prone to delinquency. Besides, military setting of juvenile boot camps is seen as the best way of providing juveniles with the sense of discipline and respect for norms and values accepted and practiced by a certain community. Juveniles enter boot camps in platoons and, thus, it is expected that they will develop a sense of companionship and camaraderie with their fellow campers with a view to offering them support and understanding.

Some studies support the idea that juvenile boot camps have their benefits. For instance, one study entitled “A National Study Comparing the Environments of Boot Camps with Traditional Facilities for Juvenile Offenders” has established that boot camps are generally positively assessed by participating inmates and the staff. Thus, juveniles perceived the environment as “more caring and just” and believed that “the programs were more therapeutic and provided them with more preparation for their release” (MacKenzie et al., 2001). They also believed that skills acquired in camps would help them in real life when continuing education or finding a job. The staff claimed to be satisfied with working conditions and preferred boot camps to traditional correctional facilities due to lower levels of stress and anxiety. However, the main concern raised by this study is the fact that juveniles reported rather high level of perceived danger from the staff (MacKenzie et al., 2001). Besides, juveniles indicated their isolation from the external world, which had an adverse impact on their re-socialization after the release from the camp (MacKenzie et al., 2001).

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On the whole, proponents of juvenile boot camps base their arguments on five key purposes that the program pursues, which include “deterrence, punishment, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and cost control” (Muscar, 2008). Supporters of these programs among policy makers and the public emphasize punishment and deterrence, while administrators of these camps tend to focus on cost control, deterrence, and rehabilitation. The cost of juvenile boot camps is much lower than the cost of incarceration. On the one hand, parents of some juveniles may donate some money to the camps. On the other hand, compared to the cost of keeping juveniles in prison, the state spends much less on keeping them in boot camps in addition to the fact that the period of time they spend in camps is relatively small. Thus, on average Camp Summit spent about $140 on one person in 2012-2013, being followed by North Central Juvenile with $205 and Pendleton with $290 (Associated Press, 2014).

Although the afore-mentioned five key purposes may be similar to the purposes of any correctional facility, proponents suppose that “boot camps are uniquely capable of meeting these goals” (Muscar, 2008). Visitors usually “come away with a very positive impression” after visiting juvenile boot camps (Muscar, 2008). Visitors see an environment that, in their opinion, fosters a sense of community and responsibility and creates role models for juveniles placed under care of professional military officers in reserve. Besides, proponents point out a fact that some boot camps offer efficient aftercare programs, hence ensuring that juvenile delinquents do not return to their previous practices and do not engage in criminal activities again. However, proponents seem to ignore official statistics that does not support a statement about effectiveness of prevention by boot camps. As to rehabilitation and deterrence, proponents emphasize the fact that the majority of boot camps offer educational programs, counseling, treatment programs, as well as involving juveniles into various activities and not letting them be idle. As to punishment, this function is performed through engaging juveniles into labor and physical training that are often harsh and strenuous. Incarceration is performed through limiting contact of juveniles with the outside world, which is practiced by the overwhelming majority of boot camps. Juveniles live in an enclosed space and can communicate only with the staff, following implemented protocols, and with other inmates whom they should learn to treat as companions. Otherwise, their parents may sometimes come to visit them, but these visits are short and not frequent. Withal, proponents suppose that juvenile boot camps may have some shortcomings in their design, functioning, procedures, and outcomes for all stakeholders involved; however, the benefits of this rehabilitation system far outweigh any potential shortcomings because boot camps serve as an intermediate correctional tool preceding incarceration in prison and allow juveniles to correct their past mistakes through labor, physical training, and military-like obedience.

Cons of the Use of Juvenile Boot Camps in the United States

Critics of the use of juvenile boot camps in the Unites States point out that the effectiveness of these camps has not been established and that these camps have more shortcomings than benefits. The underlying reason why juvenile boot camps fail to fulfill the above listed five key purposes is that juveniles’ psychology differs from the adults’ one; however, the design of the rehabilitation system under consideration fails to recognize these differences. Thus, it has been established that “teenagers do not respond to a short term physical program that includes threats and humiliation” (Muscar, 2008). Of course, they may adjust to their supervisors’ expectations for the short period of time they spend in a boot camp, yet this adjustment would not be followed by a long-time change in the personality and typical behavior patterns. Therefore, critics stress that the true purpose of juvenile boot camps is not to rehabilitate and reform potential criminals, but to punish them for what they have already committed. They reside in a hostile and severely regulated environment supervised by military-style people who subject them to physical punishments and humiliation all the time. For instance, in one of the boot camps juveniles were greeted as follows:

You are nothing and nobody, fools, maggots, dummies, motherf__s__, and you have just walked into the worst nightmare you ever dreamed. I don’t like you. I have no use for you, and I don’t give a f___ who you are on the street. This is my acre, hell’s half acre, and it matters not one damn to me whether you make it here or get tossed out into the general prison population, where, I promise you, you won’t last three minutes before you’re somebody’s wife. Do you know what that means, tough guys? (MacKenzie & Souryal, 1995)

However, the major reason why critics oppose the use of juvenile camps is that they simply do not work as intended as “neither juvenile nor adult boot camps have proven to be effective” (Lipsey et al., 2010). On the contrary, the military environment in boot camps has been proven to be linked with the high rate of recidivism, which amounts to about 8% for juveniles (Lipsey, 2009). Thus, critics indicate that it is a myth that boot camps contribute to prevention of recidivism as various programs range between “a zero effect” and an 8% increase contrary to alternative therapeutic programs like Counseling and Restorative program, which account for 10% and 12% decrease in the rate of reoffending among juveniles (Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 2013). This finding has been confirmed by a systemic study of the effects of boot camps as reported by juveniles, the staff, and relevant statistics. Although juvenile boot camps are sometimes effective in promoting programs and relatively positive perception of the environment, they have absolutely no positive impact on the rate of reoffending (Meade & Steiner, 2010).

Critics suppose that “military basic training and confrontational interactions may create undue stress on a vulnerable youth population” (MacKenzie et al., 2001). Juveniles often fear their supervisors, which is supported by extensive evidence of dangers they are exposed to in juvenile boot camps. The APA has repeatedly raised concerns about juvenile boot camps as 76 out of 108 juveniles enrolled in some boot camp programs have reported “that they were emotionally, physically or sexually abused by the staff” (Pinto et al., 2006). Some of the practices described by former inmates of boot camps fall into the list of cruel practices prohibited by the US government for use in prisons, including the Guantanamo Bay, for example, deprivation of sleep, harsh living conditions, beating, deprivation of food, sexual abuse, medical neglect, psychological pressure, seclusion, restraining, and violation of juveniles’ basic rights. Former inmates claim to undergo the following: “…had to get naked and squat while turning around in circles…”, “Sleep deprivation in the longer 3-5 workshops accompanied by very cold room temp. and carefully chosen music played at high volumes, was at times agonizing…”, “were denied sleep until the older students were satisfied with the newcomers’ progress each evening…”, “girls peed themselves…”, “some people were in isolation for months, lying on their stomach eating out of a bowl…”, and many other horrifying recollections (Pinto et al., 2006).

The extent of cases when juveniles had been abused in juvenile boot camps led to their investigation by the United States Government Accountability Office, which then presented its findings to the House of Representatives. The investigation claimed to find “thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death…between the years 1990 and 2007”, hence proving that juvenile boot camps may be dangerous for health and well-being of inmates (Kutz & O’Connell, 2007). According to the investigation, 1,619 employees of boot camps and other similar residential programs for troubled youth were found guilty of some kind of abuse (Kutz & O’Connell, 2007). The report of the United States Government Accountability Office reviewed in detail 10 cases when abuse led to the death of a juvenile because of abuse, negligence, or incompetence of the staff. Thus, in one case dated July 2001 a male teenager who was 14 years old died in a boot camp because of dehydration, malnutrition, and deprivation of medical aid (Kutz & O’Connell, 2007). He was so thirsty that he started hallucinating and eating dirt off the floor. When he fell unconscious after having a seizure, employees of the camp loaded him onto a truck and drove to the nearest hotel where they tried to revive him, but upon failing they returned to the camp and simply put his body on his sleeping bag (Kutz & O’Connell, 2007). Such instances are not rare and many juveniles are afraid to report abuse in camps out of fear for the staff’s retaliation.

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Critics also point out that boot camps often violate basic human rights and freedoms of people. In addition to closing the youth in a harsh environment, they do not provide them with any notification mechanisms in case an abuse occurs. Juveniles are essentially left on their own without anyone to turn to for help. Besides, seclusion and isolation from the external world fail to promote social skills and pro-social behavior of troubled youth as intended in general under the concept of juvenile boot camp. The youth cannot acquire necessary skills and positive attitude towards other people when they spend several months in an enclosed space governed by a military doctrine and are subjected to physical training and punishments. Although many inmates with a troubled background manage to improve their knowledge, primarily because they are not allowed to miss classes, the overall quality of the academic education offered in juvenile boot camps is questioned. Furthermore, critics point out that rehabilitation is possible only in positive, friendly, and supportive environment and not in severe militarism. In addition, fear that the staff may abuse makes juveniles resist any positive things that boot camps may offer. Besides, juvenile boot camp programs are rarely followed by some aftercare programs, which substantially increases the chance of recidivism.

Conclusion

All things considered, it is not accidental that the amount of juvenile boot camps has significantly decreased over the years in the USA. It is also not accidental that these boot camps are prevailingly associated with cruelty, violence, abuse, and military-like behavior. Juveniles who get into boot camps are subject to a wide range of shock therapies that are not always beneficial for their physical and mental health. The rate of deaths, including accidental ones and suicides, has been so staggering that it attracted attention of the government, which has conducted an in-depth investigation of various residential programs for troubled juveniles, including juvenile boot camps. The majority of literature sources pertaining to the issue under consideration concern history, pros and cons, as well as effectiveness of boot camps as compared to prisons and other residential programs. However, there are few studies that compare boot camps of the USA with those in other countries of the world where this practice is used. Hence, this direction of study should be pursued in the future. Besides, it seems reasonable to study how boot camps have impacted former inmates in the long run, especially those who have allegedly suffered from any kind of abuse. The current paper has reviewed briefly the notion of a juvenile boot camp in the USA with an emphasis on pros and cons. The limitation of the paper is that it has provided only a brief overview of the issue under consideration. Based on the analysis of several literature sources, juvenile boot camps seem to be an ineffective mechanism of juveniles’ rehabilitation that should be significantly modified with a view to ensuring safety and success of inmates or abandoned for the sake of other more efficient juvenile correction programs.

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