Boot camps. An American name that does not sit well in the New Zealand context. A confusing term that is tailor-made to become an election issue. Boot camps are regimented places of enforced residence designed to change the hearts, minds and behaviour of young people who are out of control. The idea is not new.
In the eighteen hundreds we had big ‘Industrial Schools.’ John A Lee, a future member of Parliament, famously escaped from one. Later we had large Social Welfare Homes, short and long-term. We had Borstals, which were basically youth prisons. We had, and still have, at least one youth prison that’s called a youth prison. We also have a couple of small institutions with razor-wire fences.
Until fairly recently we had the ‘short, sharp shock’ treatment of Boot camp-like Corrective Training. Young offenders were sent to these places for three months and when released were on parole, reporting to a probation officer. Corrective Training was terminated because the recidivism rate was 96%. This bleak figure should not have been surprising since three months is not short, not from a young person’s view of the world. And shock value fades, giving way to familiarity after a couple of weeks. Even more significantly, most of the young men sent to these places were old hands. Offending had been part of their lifestyle for years. They were past being shocked by a little regimentation. And most adults tend to agree that incarcerating like-minded delinquents in one place is not conducive to rehabilitation.
Boot camps don’t work any more than prison works. But work is another confusing term, at least in this context. When people say ‘it doesn’t work,’ they mean the offenders' beliefs and attitudes are not miraculously changed by the experience. They mean the behaviour of those young men with a predisposition to offend is unchanged by Boot camp or imprisonment. The astonishing thing is that we are still surprised these interventions do not create miracles.
So what works? Maturation works for most people. Adolescents who commit criminal misbehaviour are not necessarily criminals; they are simply young men. They usually grow out of it. For the rest, the hard-core, occasionally there are minor miracles that occur to turn them around. Good parents help, or an aunt or uncle or grandparent that takes an interest. Being locked in a cell for a few days, seeing no one but adults with keys, can make a young man think. But the benefit of that thought is lost if he is then returned to his offending peers.
What works is the Army’s Limited Service Volunteer Scheme at Burnham Military Camp near Christchurch. A six-week course restricted to young people aged between 17 and 25. Trainees wear military uniform. They have a structure of section, platoon, company. Busy, busy, days from 5.30 am to 10.30 pm. Seventy per cent of trainees find employment after this course or go on to further training. That’s success. So, why would anyone want to ruin it?
The thing is, the course is voluntary. Trainees are mixed rather than being from a predominantly criminal culture. Obviously the positive tone of the course owes much to this selection mix. The success of this course would be ruined if politicians got their hand on it and made it compulsory.
LONGER SENTENCES: We’ve done that.
PAROLE: Parole is practical. It provides supervision for that period following imprisonment when the offender is most at risk of reverting to criminal behaviour. Parole is also a last hope of redemption for lifers. However, parole is only a good system if it is properly administered. In my experience it is at worst, slack and at best inconsistent.
What we need now when it comes to that old election standby, law and order, is imagination.
© Chris Horan