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Marc my Words: Re-Booting our youth criminals

Marc my Words: Re-Booting our youth criminals       15th Feb 2008

Marc Alexander

In a world that is seemingly an example of what happens when we all take leave of our senses, proposals like Brat camps, for the most belligerent of youth, are an oasis of hope. While it is to be expected that such initiatives will be seized on by the political expediency of the incumbent government to showcase their contrary views, much of its potency as an idea whose time has come will be sadly lost.

At its core it boils down to this: While the Treasury reported Government Crime reduction strategies failing, around 4,000 youth end-up in Youth Court each year - and the figure is rising. Considering the overall cost of crime is $9.1 Billion per year, with youth delinquents responsible for a large chunk of it, what's been done simply hasn't worked to stem the tide.

When we hear, for instance, of 14 and 16 year old girls assaulting a bus driver - beating and kicking him while shouting "kill him" knowing that, at best, they will face limited consequences, it's hardly surprising there is little respect for the rule of law. In fact as it is currently applied, it protects them with a bevy of rights provided by legal aid. Family Group Conferences? Last year over 600 teenagers appeared before a FGC for the 3rd time; 250 for between 5th and 16th time and one for the 19th time. There is a pattern here.

But just as seeds don't become trees overnight, good kids don't abruptly become bad either. There's a whole series of transitional steps that so far has met little resistance. Defiance of parents, teachers or authority goes unchallenged giving way  to resurface as manipulative conduct testing legal boundaries, and truant behavior. Breaking the rules without response sooner or later gives way to breaking the law.

Sentencing options should be widened if only because the next permitted port of call is prison - a university of criminality. Don't get me wrong, prison is a fine place to put those deserving, but alternatives should be available for those most likely to respond positively before they embark on a career of unabated violence and crime.  'Brat Camps' would be a last resort for such offenders - the only current options are endless Family Group conferences or prison. Run by armed services instilling much needed discipline and specialist teachers to ram choices only education can provide - they offer a real opportunity. 

One thing is clear: the most effective rehabilitation isn't more self-awareness programs, or perpetual hug-a-thons but work and education. Equipping young inmates with skills and a work ethic lessens opportunities for a culture borne of boredom reinforcing the criminal lifestyle. There is no point in law unless it is expeditiously asserted. That means targeted intolerance to crime pre-conditions (graffiti, vandalism, truancy, drug dealing etc); Raise the certainty of apprehensions; timely consequences; and finally, post-release conditions that preclude the risk of falling back into patterns of crime - this includes accommodation and employment.

If some see these policy steps as draconian it's only because they have bought into the thirty year failed experiment of the prevalent dogma who view criminals as the real victims. Treatment-only approaches absolve personal responsibility, shifting the burden onto everyone else including victims. It's a tired recipe yielding disastrous results: 86% released from prison are re-convicted within five years.

Literature about the efficacy of Brat camps abounds - much of it outwardly contradictory. This is partly because they can be hard to evaluate. It's difficult, for example, to isolate the particular components responsible for the claimed success of some of them. Is it the discipline, education, physical activities or the drug and alcohol rehabilitation? Difficult yes, but hardly impossible. What is known is that those with the lowest recidivism rates combine all these approaches. In other words they operate synergistically.


There is compelling research that physical training rids aggressive and defiant behaviors which, in turn, lays the foundation for inmates to be more receptive to drug and alcohol treatments. In tandem the approach then allows for greater attention to be focused on educational learning.[1]  A number of studies have verified some excellent results.[2] Just as important as understanding what does succeed, is what clearly doesn't. Those least successful typically shared a number of common features. These include: a lack of parental interest and involvement; no follow-up; minimal or no mentoring; and a return to the same pre-conditions which helped shape the offending behaviors including contact with recalcitrant peers. In comparison with out current crop of failed initiatives, those camps with a strong treatment focus in addition to discipline, education and drug and alcohol rehabilitation had stunning positive effects on future offending.[3]

Louisiana Boot camp graduates, for example, had the lowest rate of recidivism of all programs, fewer re-offending rates than either parolees and fewer technical violations than drop-outs. The reason? The Louisiana camp included three or more hours of treatment each day alongside the more arduous activities.[4] Sadly those that should know better, and in whose pecuniary and/or ideological interests it does not serve, confuse the myriad different types of Boot or Brat Camps in an attempt to justify their failed pet theories.

For decades the public has put up with the collective intellectual dishonesty that blamed crime on everything from parents and poverty to the "hot summer and full moon".[5] Despite the attempts by liberal academics and their bureaucratic allies to mitigate youth crime, when these people start waffling about root causes, what they invariably intend to do is ascribe blame on everyone other than the perpetrator. No-one should misunderstand the obvious: the cause of crime is the decision to commit it. Brat camps - if properly executed, has every potential to be a circuit-breaker on a future of crime for many of our youth. Cheaper in the long-run, they have a high benefit in returning wayward youth to productive life; dramatically slash future victims; and, as an alternative to prison, provide opportunities for reform - the added benefit of which, is the absence of a prison record which could undermine future employment. Not only does the Youth being targeted score an opportunity they would not ordinarily have, but more importantly, society benefits with a much reduced crime and victim rate.

[1]Brian P. Block, "The pain and pride: Life inside the Colorado Boot camp", Waterside Press, Winchester. 2000.


[3] Brandon Welsh, David P. Farrington (Eds.), "Preventing Crime: What works for children, Offenders, Victims and Places", Springer. 2006. p. 80

[4] Bonnie L. Tensen, Jon M Shepard, Robert Russell, Johnson, Joel Samaha, Margaret L Andersen, Glenn Grayson Sparks, "Criminal Justice",  Thomas Wadsworth, 2005. p. 427

[5] Police Minister Annette King ridiculously credited the high murder rate in January 2008 to the weather. See http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/1/story.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10489791


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