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Clock may be ticking on state's boot camps

A House committee recommends ending funding for the camps and switching to a less confrontational program.

Published March 25, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - The state's boot camps for juvenile offenders may soon be history.

With controversy over the beating of Martin Anderson still unsettled, a House budget committee on Friday recommended ending funding for boot camps, directing the money instead to a less confrontational program under development.

Gov. Jeb Bush and the sheriffs who now run boot camps support the move. The Senate, whose tentative budget maintains money for boot camps, will also consider the idea.

"This is a 100 percent policy shift," said Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach. "Intimidation-based programs simply don't work."

The House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee redirected $10.5-million pegged for boot camps to what is tentatively called the Sheriff's Training and Respect program, or STAR.

It is modeled after a successful boot camp in Martin County that places more emphasis on education, mentoring and transitional support than the other programs in Pinellas, Polk and Manatee counties.

(Bay County's boot camp, where Anderson was sent after taking his grandmother's car for a joyride, is closing amid the controversy.)

Martin County's approach has resulted in a 20 percent recidivism rate, second best among all 150 juvenile justice programs in Florida. Other boot camps have significantly higher recidivism rates. In Pinellas, a study showed that nine out of 10 youths are re-arrested after leaving the program.

Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats said the new approach is worth trying.

"I'm willing to test the water and tone down the shock treatment. We need structured behavior, but maybe we can achieve that without being as aggressive as we have in the past."

Officials with the four remaining boot camps met this week to identify which of their "best practices" can be incorporated into the STAR program. That means banning pain compliance tactics such as arm twisting or knee strikes and moving away from the over-the-top shouting intended to scare kids straight. The exercise component will probably remain, but also in scaled-down fashion.

"Part of the discussion is to have a softer approach," said Chris Caballero, chief of staff for the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Boot camps were thrust into the spotlight after the early January death of 14-year-old Martin Anderson in Panama City. A video shows a half-dozen drill instructors punching and kneeing Anderson after he collapsed while running laps.

Anderson died the next day in a Pensacola hospital, setting off an ever-widening controversy. On Friday, members of the Legislature's black caucus demanded that Gov. Bush fire Bay County Medical Examiner Charles Siebert, who concluded Anderson died of the blood disorder sickle cell trait, not the beating.

Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss said such talk is premature, since the investigation into the death is ongoing. But Schweiss said Bush is supportive of efforts to change the boot camp culture.

The governor met recently with sheriffs, calling for an end to a variety of aggressive tactics and more medical oversight. The sheriffs continued to meet and are working toward the best practices model. Only those that adopt the standards will be eligible for funding under Barreiro's idea.

The budget proposed by the House committee Friday increases the per diem rate for boot camps to $100 per youth, up from about $81 per day. It also includes $45 per day for after care.

Whether that will be enough to sustain the programs in the long term is uncertain. Sheriffs and juvenile justice advocates say funding has been lacking for years, and until recently, the Martin County program was set to close.

"They're giving it lip service if they don't adequately fund it," said Martin Sheriff Robert Crowder. But he said he believes strongly in the concept and is eager to make it work.

Pinellas has encountered financial problems, too. The county subsidized its boot camp last year by $953,000. Sheriff Coats said the reshaped concept could require more personnel.

Barreiro's committee budget still needs approval in the full House and will need to be coordinated with the Senate.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who oversees the Senate's criminal justice budget committee, said Friday afternoon that he was unaware of the House proposal. Crist's budget includes funding for boot camps but calls for a study by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability.

"We did not want to have a knee jerk reaction to one incident at one facility," Crist said. Still, he said if the proposal moves beyond simply changing the name, he is willing to take a look.

[Last modified March 25, 2006, 01:51:17]

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