Boot camps losing favor nationally

A number of states have closed the facilities, but Florida is working to save them, despite arguments that they aren't successful.

Published March 5, 2006

Tony Haynes and Gina Score were 14 when they were sent to boot camp, he for slashing tires and she for shoplifting Beanie Babies. The experience was supposed to turn their lives around.

Instead, it killed them.

Tony died after he was forced to stand for hours in Arizona's 112-degree heat, punishment for asking to go home. Gina collapsed after a 2.7-mile run in South Dakota. Guards, convinced she was faking, left her on the ground for three hours.

Their deaths intensified debate over boot camps several years ago. Once considered cutting edge, they have fallen out of favor because of high recidivism rates and accusations of brutality.

A number of states - including Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon and South Dakota - have closed boot camps.

"The boot camp fad is over," said Melissa Sickmund, a researcher with the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.

Not in Florida.

Two months after 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died following a violent encounter with drill instructors in Bay County, the state is defying the trend and working to save boot camps, despite some lawmakers' demands to close them.

"It's inappropriate to govern at the margins, to create an entire policy based on a tragic event," Gov. Jeb Bush said last week. "It is more than appropriate to review procedures that dictate or govern how these facilities are run."

With the backing of the governor and the sheriffs who run boot camps, the Department of Juvenile Justice is rewriting policy to bar some physical restraints and improve medical care.

"We still believe boot camps are a viable option," said department spokeswoman Cynthia Lorenzo.

But many juvenile justice experts say the state - out of pride or ignorance - is blowing an opportunity to divert resources to more successful programs.

"What gives?" asked Thomas Blomberg, a Florida State University criminology professor who recently testified before a legislative panel on boot camps.

"In light of all the evidence, which is now almost two decades old, showing with unbroken frequency that boot camp programs do not work, why do some want to cling to them?"

Doris MacKenzie, a University of Maryland professor who has studied boot camps, was surprised that Florida plans to stick with the program.

"I don't know why they would save it unless they reject the science," she said.

Figures from the Juvenile Justice Department show the recidivism rate for the state's boot camps has increased since the camps were introduced in the early 1990s. Records show that 62 percent of graduates from the several camps around the state are arrested again after being released - a rate experts call high.

Martin County's boot camp is considered among the best of the state's 142 male residential programs, but it is closing this summer due to funding problems. Its success, officials concede, had less to do with the in-your-face antics that define boot camps and more with the educational and aftercare components that help youths return to society.

The Bay County boot camp in Panama City also is closing because the sheriff who runs it says it is too controversial. That leaves the state with three boot camps: Manatee, Pinellas and Polk.

"Boot camps are not inherently bad, depending on how they are done," said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. "The problem is a lot of states that jumped on the bandwagon did for publicity's sake to demonstrate they are tough on crime.

"So instead of developing a well-run program, that sentiment gets translated to staff, and when kids don't follow orders, they resort to physical force. You end up having a series of abuses that culminate in a horrible tragedy, and then everyone says, "How did this happen?"'

* * *

That was the case in Maryland.

Boot camps opened there in 1996 with the philosophy of breaking kids down to build them up. From the outset, guards routinely beat youths, inflicting cuts and bruises and occasionally breaking bones.

The problem was not exposed until a reporter for the Baltimore Sun wrote about the camps in late 1999. The reporter, Todd Richissin, was invited into the camps and witnessed abuse firsthand - an indication of how accepted it was.

Maryland was forced to close the camps and pay 890 former delinquents more than $4-million. Ten of the most severely beaten shared $1-million.

Georgia's boot camps, which opened in 1994, were the subject of a 1998 report by the Justice Department, which found juveniles were put in choke holds and slammed into walls by guards.

"The paramilitary boot camp model is not only ineffective, but harmful to such youths," the report stated. Georgia closed its boot camps the next year.

By then, the national sentiment was turning. Studies showed recidivism rates were no better, and in some cases worse, than traditional juvenile facilities. The camps were not as cost effective as thought because youths who had minor offenses were brought into the system. And because they tended to get arrested again, they ended up in jail or prison. Abuse allegations piled up, as did high-profile deaths.

"It constantly amazes me how we get caught up in these movements without any shred of evidence that they work," Orlando Martinez, who headed Georgia's Juvenile Justice Department at the time, said in an interview Friday.

How many states had boot camps and scrapped them is unknown. No agency, including the federal government, maintains that kind of tracking. But available data and newspaper archives illustrate the trend.

Adding to the mix are private facilities. Some states, such as Arizona, severed ties with boot camps, but private companies continued to operate them.

Tony Haynes was sent to the Buffalo Soldiers camp near Phoenix in July 2001 after his mother reached her limit. Many other parents saw the camp as a last-ditch effort to straighten up their children.

Haynes' death brought out reports of youths being forced to eat dirt and ordered to lie down as guards ran over their chests. The camp was closed, and its director was sentenced to six years in prison.

By 2002, Arizona moved to eliminate loopholes allowing for private camps, furthering the national trend away from the programs.

* * *

The conversation did not bypass Florida, which opened boot camps in 1993. State officials were aware of shortcomings, but without major lawsuits or attention-grabbing deaths, the programs continued with little question, even as recidivism studies showed they were ineffective.

State officials insisted the boot camps were different from others because they emphasized education and provided support as youths returned to society.

"You don't hear about the big rush to build boot camps like you used to, but I'm not prepared to say their time has come and gone," Jay Plotkin, a Duval county prosector, told the Florida Times-Union in February 2000.

Then came Martin Lee Anderson's death.

Suddenly, Florida's boot camp system was national news and the debate began anew. Newspapers ran editorials calling for their demise. A small yet vocal group of lawmakers echoed the refrain.

"Being tough on crime, whether a Democrat or Republican, is good politics," said state Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, a strident boot camp critic. "But we can't put kids back on the street who are ticked off. What we're doing is setting these kids up for failure."

Gov. Bush and others acknowledge the criticism but insist boot camps have a place in Florida. This week, the Juvenile Justice Department could release its plan to recast boot camps as a less intimidating, more supportive place.

Some say it is a wasted effort. "Let's face it, if you're hollering in somebody's face, that's not going to stop them from being a bully," said state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville. "Does there have to be another death before we shut them down?"

Staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at 850 224-7263 or aleary@sptimes.com