While overall crime rates are headed down in the US, crimes by youthful offenders remain a major concern throughout the country. And the most popular response to that concern, in legislative chambers, is get-tough measures like those in the federal juvenile crime bill that zoomed through the House last summer. It later came to rest in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill's main thrust is toward trying and incarcerating violent juveniles as adults.
Another get-tough thrust of recent years has been "boot camps" for young criminals. These military style encampments were designed to force-feed discipline, cut recidivism, and save state dollars by avoiding costly prison time. A report in a recent issue of Governing magazine indicates they've had spotty success, at best.
A number of states have closed their boot camps after finding that the savings were elusive and that all too many of the youths didn't drop a life of crime after their stint with a drill instructor. Where states have made the added investment of an "aftercare" program for "graduates," the camps, not too surprisingly, seem to work.
These follow-up programs typically include education incentives and job-search training. Thus penal boot camp becomes something more than a dead end, and recidivism is less likely.
This reminded us of comments made by some thoughtful criminologists during the juvenile-crime bill debate earlier this year. They emphasized that toughness and stern jail time have a place in dealing effectively with young repeat offenders. But they put equal emphasis on efforts to reach youths, including those with records, at the street level. Church-based or community-run counseling programs work, as do concerted campaigns to give inner-city kids better ways to fill their hours through wider recreation and educational options.
As the Senate takes up the juvenile crime bill next year, we hope it keeps the lessons from boot camp in mind.