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Institute Of Criminal Justice & Forensic Psychology Disappointed With Mooted 'Military-style Camps For Young Offenders'

The Institute of Criminal Justice and Forensic Psychology expresses its disappointment with the National party’s proposal to “bring back military-style boot camps for young offenders if elected”, as reported on Stuff (Jonah Franke-Bowell, 13:09, Nov 17 2022).

We would like to remind the public that this is not a new idea and that it has largely failed to reduce re-offending anywhere in the world.

A recent, yet to be published article by leading criminologists has summarised international research examining 12 interventions for reducing youth offending and antisocial behaviour. The authors concluded that in terms of reducing recidivism, cognitive behavioural interventions were most effective, pre-court diversion programmes were somewhat effective, and “school exclusion reduction, after-school programs, and boot camps are least effective.”

Summarising the literature on boot camps, we can say with a relatively high level of confidence that they have a ‘harmful’ impact on crime (i.e., they are likely to increase violent crime). This rating is based on a high-quality systematic review of 17 studies.[1] The cost of these interventions is also likely to be high given the resources required (e.g., securing a suitable site for the boot camp, site maintenance, exercise equipment, resources for education and vocational courses, other costs associated with providing 24-hour residential care for young people, salaries of trained military staff, prison officers, teachers and therapists). Taken together, they appear to be an expensive way of increasing violence in the community, rather than decreasing it.

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Within this review, the few boot camps that were found to produce desirable effects included therapeutic interventions or counselling. These interventions can be delivered in the absence of a military setting for less money and with better outcomes.

Closer to home, Chief Science Advisor to the Justice Sector, Professor Ian Lambie reported in 2018:

“Boot camps do not work and “scared straight” programmes have been shown to increase crime. Young offenders can find the “thrill”, or emotional “high” of violent offending, and the social rewards (such as admiration from their peers), more important to them than concerns about being caught or facing social disapproval. Youth need alternative, prosocial ways to achieve engagement and social approval.”[2]

While it is yet to be determined what National’s proposed “boot camps” will specifically involve, we suggest that it is important to use tax-payer money to produce effective interventions. Previous boot camps proposed by National did appear to include therapeutic elements, suggesting a desire to appear “tough on crime” while actually including elements of evidence-based practice.

“We are not the first to say it is more important to be smart with crime rather than tough on crime” says Nick Farrelly, Chair of the Institute of Criminal Justice and Forensic Psychology. “We understand the public frustrations, challenges and harm caused by offending committed by youth, which is why we encourage the use of tax-payer money to develop interventions that actually produce results”. As mentioned previously, cognitive behavioural interventions tend to produce the best results in terms of reducing violent offending among youth, and this is widely accepted by academics, psychologists, and other experts and practitioners working in this field.

It is of public interest that effective evidence-based interventions are promoted and supported by any party looking to govern the country. The state has a duty to reduce harm where possible and a responsibility to apply evidence-based practice where it is available and compelling, as is the case here.

[1] Summary and Technical Report available at https://youthendowmentfund.org.uk/toolkit/boot-camps/

[2] Lambie, I. (2018). It’s never too early, never too late: A discussion paper on preventing youth offending in New Zealand. Auckland, NZ: Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. Available from www.pmcsa.ac.nz.

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