Manatee's boot camp in trouble

Facility struggling with rate of recidivism, budget deficit

Bradenton Herald (FL)/April 2, 2006
By Duane Marsteller

Manatee -- Its creation attracted national media attention, prompted Jerry Springer to tape an episode of his TV talk show there and garnered Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells and his agency numerous accolades.

It was 1993, and Manatee County had launched Florida's first military-style boot camp for teen criminals.

Says Wells: "All that attention surprised me."

Since then, Manatee's boot camp has gone from being the first to among the last - and on the verge of extinction.

Florida's camps have come under intense scrutiny since January, when 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died after being punched, kicked and dragged by drill instructors at Bay County's camp. The videotaped altercation has sparked a criminal investigation, renewed debate over the camps' effectiveness, led to growing calls to abolish them and put the camps' state funding at risk.

"I think this will be the catalyst for the demise of Florida's military boot camps," said Cathy Corry, president of Inc., a Clearwater-based advocacy group that's been highly critical of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. "These dungeons will cease to exist."

The camps, born of the "tough love" movement in the 1980s, were losing favor long before Anderson's death. A growing number of academic studies question their effectiveness compared with other programs. At least 10 states, including Alabama, California and Georgia, have closed their camps because of abuse, deaths and/or poor results.

In Florida, the percentage of teens who commit crimes after completing the camps - especially Manatee's - has been rising. The four camps still operating in the state are fewer than half the number a decade ago. And the state's most-respected camp, in Martin County, is closing because of financial losses.

Despite the mounting criticism, state juvenile justice officials, Wells and the sheriffs who operate the two other camps - in Pinellas and Polk counties - are trying to save them. They're crafting a proposal that would change how the camps are run but keep them operating.

They contend the camps still have their place, despite state data indicating that their effectiveness has been declining for several years.

"I think we belong there, dealing with the kids we're dealing with," Wells said.

'Shock and awe'

The boot-camp concept stemmed from the "Scared Straight" programs of the 1970s, in which hard-core inmates confronted young offenders with the harsh realities of prison life.

Prison officials in Georgia and Oklahoma opened the first adult boot camps in 1983, believing a program of strict discipline, rigorous exercise and education modeled after military basic training could also "shock and awe" young offenders away from crime.

Numerous other states, including Florida, quickly followed suit. Within 10 years, 59 such camps were operating in 29 states, a U.S. General Accounting Office survey found.

Most of those targeted young adults who were first-time and/or nonviolent offenders. But as juvenile crime and violence skyrocketed in the late 1980s, so did efforts to expand the camps to include those under age 18. By 1996, a University of Maryland study found 48 such camps operating in 27 states.

In 1989, Florida legislators changed state law to allow juvenile boot camps. Unlike the state's existing adult camps, the juvenile camps were to target more violent felons - even those convicted of murder were eligible.

During that time, Wells was looking into opening an adult camp. But Circuit Judge Durand Adams, who then was a juvenile judge, and the agency that oversaw the state's juvenile justice system at the time suggested making it a juvenile camp.

Wells agreed. He quickly won support from local, state and juvenile justice officials, who were facing public pressure to do something about juvenile crime. The boot-camp concept gained even more momentum in Florida following a rash of high-profile slayings of foreign tourists, some committed by teenagers.

"Juvenile crime was just skyrocketing out of sight," Wells said. "I think the Florida Legislature and (juvenile justice) officials were desperate to try anything."

The experiment began March 29, 1993, when the first platoon of 15 "recruits" entered Manatee County's camp. Within 18 months, five other counties had opened their own camps.

Manatee's first platoons were made of teens with long rap sheets that included violent crimes, including one who was convicted of attempted murder. A year after Manatee's camp opened, state legislators changed the law to exclude teens convicted of capital, life or first-degree felonies from the camps.

"Those first few kids were meaner than hell, and we still did some good with them," Wells said.

Losing effectiveness?

But the camps have a so-so record in discouraging future criminal activity, state statistics show.

Between 1994 and 2004, the most recent year for which data is available, some 44 percent of those who completed the state's boot camps were convicted of another crime within a year of their release, according to Department of Juvenile Justice data.

The department doesn't track boot camp graduates beyond their first year, but experts say recidivism rates increase the longer graduates are removed from camp.

Since hitting a low of 38 percent in 2000, when those who graduated between July 1, 1997, and June 30, 1998, were studied, the recidivism rate for Florida's camps has been on a generally upward trend. It was 44 percent for those who graduated between July 1, 2003, and June 30, 2004, the most recent time period for which data was available, down slightly from the peak of 47 percent in the previous year.

"You can't just shock and awe these kids into turning their lives around," said Cassandra Jenkins, juvenile justice director for Children's Campaign Inc., a Tallahassee-based children's advocacy coalition. "Just locking a kid up and doing physical fitness doesn't work."

Programs that work offer education, counseling, day treatment, after-care and family involvement, she said.

For Manatee's camp, the poor track record has been even more pronounced.

Manatee's recidivism rate since 2001 is 53 percent, tied with Bay County's camp for the highest among the seven that operated during that time period. Excluding Manatee, the other camps' combined average is 41 percent.

Manatee's worsening recidivism rate has affected its grades from the Juvenile Justice department, which annually rates the effectiveness of more than 150 juvenile justice programs statewide. Manatee's camp, rated "average" four years ago, has been tabbed as among the state's "least effective" for two straight years.

Repeat offenders

Wells doesn't dispute the worsening trend but contends that recidivism rates aren't an accurate measuring stick. He argues that any recidivism rate of less than 100 percent is an improvement, given that boot camp recruits already have multiple convictions before they enter the program.

"It's 100 percent before we even get them," Wells said. "We don't get kids who've committed only one crime."

Between 2001 and 2004, Manatee boot camp recruits had an average of 6.4 convictions each prior to entering the program, according to state records. That is similar to other camps.

Wells also contends Manatee's recidivism rate is higher because of the lack of a law enforcement-operated after-care program, which helps boot camp graduates adjust to the outside world. Other agencies provide after-care services, such as mental health counseling, to Manatee boot camp graduates.

"The after-care component, that's the major difference," Wells said. "They (other camps) keep their kids for a year. We keep them for six months, so we're always going to be low without after-care."

He attributes the Martin County boot camp's low recidivism rate, which has averaged 23 percent since 2000, directly to its after-care program. The six-month program includes frequent contact between graduates and law-enforcement officers, including officers driving teens to and from school.

But that success isn't enough to keep Martin's camp open.

The camp is closing June 30 "no matter what" because of mounting financial losses, said Martin County Sheriff's spokeswoman Lt. Jenell Atlas. The sheriff's office expects the camp to incur a $336,000 operating loss this year.

"We don't have the money" to continue it, she said. "We aren't getting enough funding from the state, so we're shutting it down."

Manatee's camp has been operating at a $200,000-plus annual deficit for several years, which Manatee County taxpayers cover, Wells said. He blames the deficits on inadequate state funding.

But boot camp critics note that insufficient funding plagues all juvenile justice programs, not just boot camps. The juvenile justice system's funding falls $100 million short of meeting the need, including $33 million needed to address critical deficiencies, according to a survey of providers who are members of the Children's Campaign.

"Because of the attention on boot camps, it's brought attention to the fact that Florida's system is at a breaking point," Jenkins said.

Boot camps account for a small part of the state's juvenile justice system: Fewer than 5 percent of juvenile offenders sent to residential programs since 1998 went to boot camps, according to a Herald analysis of state records.

"They (boot camps) may be a good option in a long menu of options," said Hunter Hurst Jr., a senior research assistant at the National Center for for Juvenile Justice, a research institute in Pittsburgh. "Matching the right kid to that environment is the key. Florida has a vast array of options."

Camps shutting down

The Martin camp's closing will continue a trend in Florida, which had nine juvenile boot camps operating a decade ago.

Volusia County's camp closed in 1997. Leon County, the third county to open a camp, closed it in 2001. Collier County's program shut down in December, and Bay County's camp is closing because of Anderson's death. Polk County also once operated a girls' boot camp.

Officials cite a combination of financial losses and questions about the camps' effectiveness.

Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter closed his Discipline, Respect, Integrity, Learning and Leadership (DRILL) Academy because he "was not pleased with the results" of a recidivism study he requested, said Cmdr. Beth Jones, who oversaw the program.

Jones said she did not recall the recidivism rates, but said the study was based on the academy's graduates from 1996 to 1999 and their criminal histories up to 2005. Hunter plans to replace the academy with a prevention program aimed at high-risk youths, she said.

A similar study requested by Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats found that nine of every 10 boys who have gone through the Pinellas County boot camp were arrested again, the St. Petersburg Times recently reported.

Manatee has not done any such study on the more than 600 boys aged 14 to 18 who have completed its program, Wells said.

"The effectiveness of boot camps was questioned long before the first kid stepped into one," Wells said. "I never said this would be a panacea."

All in question

Since Anderson's death, Wells, Coats and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd have been meeting with state juvenile justice officials find ways to modify - and save - the camps.

They've been working to identify "best practices" that could be incorporated into a new, less-confrontational model tentatively called the Sheriff's Training Respect program, or STAR. Among them are banning "pain compliance" tactics, reducing the face-to-face screaming by drill instructors and more-thorough physical exams of incoming recruits.

Wells contends those best practices are being used in his camp but were never formalized until now.

"We don't use pain. We don't abuse kids. We don't use Tasers," he said. "There's really nothing new in this thing. We've been doing it the whole time."

The STAR concept has won the backing of a House budget committee, which recommended redeploying $10.5 million in boot camp money to the program. Other House committees and the Senate have yet to act on the recommendation.

The House committee's proposed budget also included higher per-diem rates for the facilities, which the state contracts out and pays for at set rates.

Despite the furor over Anderson's death, there's been no flurry of proposed legislative action. Only two bills - identical ones in the House and Senate - address the camps, and the only proposed change is a renumbering of one section of the state's juvenile justice law.

That doesn't surprise Corry, who argues that the political power of Florida's sheriffs hinders true reform.

"They don't want to make it appear to be a knee-jerk reaction to what they call an isolated incident," she said. "I do think they will make changes - but it won't be so obvious as to admit there is a problem."

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