Ten-hut! Boot camps can’t replace youth programs

There’s no evidence that bootcamps on their own help young offenders. Youth crime image from www.shutterstock.com

During Queensland’s recent election campaign, the then state opposition leader, Campbell Newman, promised to spend $2 million trialling the use of correctional boot camps to address the problem of young offenders.

On 27 November, the Queensland Parliament passed the Youth Justice (Boot Camp Orders) & Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 that will see the pilot boot camp trial rolled out – one in Cairns and one on the Gold Coast.

So what exactly are correctional boot camps, and what does the research evidence say about their effectiveness?

Breaking a few bad eggs

Correctional boot camps have the primary goal of preventing young people from re-offending. If they are used in place of youth detention, they also hold the promise of reducing the youth detention population, and therefore reducing costs.

Given both the very high cost of incarcerating young people, and the well-documented negative outcomes that youth detention can have (for example disruptions to education and employment, the development of associations with offending peers) these are laudable aims.

Correctional boot camps were modelled after military basic training facilities; participants are typically assigned to squads and housed in dormitories that resemble barracks. The rigorous daily routine emphasises obedience and demanding physical activity, supervised by program staff who take on the role of drill instructors and are often addressed by military titles.

Misbehaviour is punished swiftly, usually by the imposition of some type of physical activity such as push-ups.

The philosophy behind boot camps is essentially that short-term confinement, strict discipline and tough physical activity will “shock” young people into changing their behaviour, and that when they leave the boot camp, these young people will re-enter society as respectful and obedient individuals who are more likely to comply with the law.

The Queensland Bill states:

The key objective of the boot camp program is to instill discipline, respect and values into young people entrenched in the youth justice system to divert them from further offending and support them to make constructive life choices.

What’s the evidence?

While those in favour of correctional boot camps typically argue that the conditions imposed on young people are conducive to positive growth and change, critics argue that boot camps are likely to exacerbate feelings of anger and reinforce aggressive values and behaviours.

Criminologists have also argued that authoritarian figures who give orders are inappropriate mentors for young offenders with histories of violence and anti-social behaviour.

The evidence about the effectiveness of boot camps has been subject to rigorous analysis a number of times. Findings repeatedly show that boot camps are ineffective in reducing offending by young people unless a strong therapeutic program - one that addresses the educational, psychological, cognitive and family needs of the young person - is included.

Although in some cases boot camps appear to have produced positive effects – such as improvements in problem-solving skills, self-esteem, and the ability to control impulses - these immediate changes do not have lasting effects or result in a reduction in re-offending.

In the longer-term, research shows that there is no difference between the odds of re-offending by young people sentenced to a basic correctional boot camp, and young people sentenced to traditional detention. In fact, the renowned Washington State Institute of Public Policy has found that boot camps are often a negative cost to the state.

Researchers have also suggested that if a militaristic atmosphere, strict discipline, and rigorous physical exercise are beneficial, then young offenders who participated in boot camps would have shown lower rates of re-offending than young offenders who did not participate, with or without the addition of rehabilitative, therapeutic and aftercare services.

Therefore, researchers from the Campbell Collaboration – where evidence about criminal justice interventions is rigorously examined - have concluded that “the military component of boot camps is not effective in reducing post boot camp offending”.

Marching orders

Why don’t traditional correctional boot camps work? One criticism is that they are not based on an established set of principles. There is no standard boot camp model.

Another explanation is that the length of correctional boot camps is too short to realistically affect re-offending. Many programs also lack a strong treatment component, have an insufficient focus on offenders’ re-entry into the community, or do not target the causes of offending, which makes the boot camp incompatible with rehabilitation.

As Queensland rolls out its trial of correctional boot camps for young people, it should not expect that re-offending among young people will decrease, unless a strong therapeutic program is included.

According to the bill, the boot camp program will involve strenuous physical activities and offence-focused programs, counselling, substance abuse programs, community reparation, family support and support to re-engage with learning or employment.

Supervised, community-based orders are already available as an option for young offenders in Queensland. We should ask the government why they don’t implement evidence-based therapeutic programs as part of these orders, and avoid the dislocation from family and school that young people sentenced to boot camps will now face.