Marty Beyer, Ph.D.


     Although juvenile crime is not on the rise, the public, misinformed by politicians and the press, insists on increasingly cruel methods to punish young offenders.1  Since 1980, younger and younger teenagers have been treated as adult criminals. Boot camps for juveniles are the latest in this dangerous trend and will be as ineffective as wholesale locking youth in adult facilities. Yet the message has not gotten out to state legislatures and corrections departments that juvenile boot camps will neither reduce crime nor save on prison costs.

    There have been surprisingly few voices against juvenile boot camps. Paul DeMuro has drawn attention to deaths in boot camps, the use of military discipline to disguise staff mistreatment particularly of minority youth, and the absence of follow-up supports when youth return to their communities.2  He has predicted an increase in adult court referrals as youth who fail to complete boot camps or are re-arrested after their release are no longer viewed as eligible for juvenile court. Dale Parent's statistical analysis demonstrates that juvenile boot camps cannot save money unless they have hundreds of beds and the stay is limited to three months--conditions all agree would make the programs pointless.3  Furthermore, he emphasizes that juvenile boot camps are widening the net by including youth who previously would not have been locked up--boot camps could only reduce correctional costs if participants are selected from the population already qualified for incarceration.  David Altschuler has argued that incarceration is only as effective as the reintegration services supporting youth to avoid their former criminal lifestyle when they return home.4  He points out that juvenile boot camps are limited to "shock incarceration" and keep costs down by leaving aftercare to overloaded probation and parole officers.  Without any documentation that boot camps decrease delinquency--and, in fact, reports that two early juvenile boot camps (in Florida and Ohio) had recidivism rates of 70%--millions of federal and state dollars are going into juvenile boot camp construction and operation.

    Since the observations of prominent juvenile justice experts and the absence of positive outcome studies have not deterred incarceration-minded politicians, perhaps we should consider educating the public about the dangers of juvenile boot camps instead through their experience as parents. Parents search for a wise balance of love and limits to meet their teenagers' needs. The adult criminal system in general, and boot camps in particular, fail the basic test of balancing nurturing and opportunities for independence. Everyone who has been the parent of a teenager knows that boot camps cannot be effective because they violate the basic principles of adolescent development:

  • Teenagers are Fairness Fanatics
    Operating successful group programs for this age group is difficult because most adolescents are moralistic and intolerant of anything that seems unfair. They react especially to group punishment as unfair.
  • Teenagers Reject Imposed Structure
    Although they benefit from limits, adolescents object to being forced to adhere to structure in which they did not have a voice. "Authority problems" in schools and correctional programs can be at least in part attributed to insistence on controlling youth who are accustomed to running their own lives. Many youth who have been physically or sexually abused or exposed to substance abuse or domestic violence in their families react especially negatively to imposed outside controls.
  • Teenagers Respond to Encouragement
    Although youth may alter their behavior momentarily to avoid punishment, attitudes and behaviors seldom change as a result of punishment.


    Given their reaction against unfairness, imposed structure, and punishment, it is not surprising that young people reject what might be offered as assistance when they mistrust the adults in charge as unfair, controlling and punitive. This rejection of "help" is a strength--it is the way youth have survived the adversity of poverty and racism. If this mistrust of unfair, controlling and punitive adults is subdued, it undermines the very survival technique that has allowed these youth to make it as far as they have.

    Ironically, as states build juvenile boot camps which are likely to fail, the ingredients for services that enable delinquents to invest in noncriminal futures are well-known. Delinquents change their behavior when services build on their strengths and meet their needs. Programs such as Associated Marine Institutes (in Florida and other states), Youth Advocacy Program (in Pennsylvania), Children's Trust Neighborhood Initiative (in Washington, D.C.), ARC (in Pennsylvania), and the family treatment program at the Medical University of South Carolina have high success rates with delinquents. These programs have several characteristics in common:


  • They meet each youth's need to feel competent at something.
    These programs provide opportunities for success and celebrate each youth's competence. Recognizing that school and non-criminal employment have been inaccessible, these programs offer youth real preparation for self-respecting work.
  • They meet each youth's need to be in charge.
    These programs emphasize choice-making and encourage genuine youth involvement in designing the daily routine and carrying out tasks.
  • They meet each youth's need to appreciate the strengths of their families.
    These programs empower families and support young people in identifying with the positive characteristics of family members and making peace with the disappointments and hurt from their families.
  • They meet each youth's need to belong.
    These programs offer a non-violent group as desirable as a gang that gives recognition and encouragement and is hopeful about the future.


    Programs that are effective with serious juvenile offenders recognize that if the young people do not want what we think they need, little will change in their lives. However well-meaning the staff, young people will react against the imposed structure, punishment and unfairness of juvenile boot camps. Even when they have committed serious crimes, young people have different needs than adults.

    Wake up legislatures and corrections departments!  Juvenile boot camps will neither reduce crime nor save on prison costs. The more resources spent on boot camps which are unlikely to be effective, the less will be available for delinquency programs with proven success.


Beyer, Marty (1996). "Juvenile Boot Camps Don't Make Sense," Criminal Justice, 10, 4.

1The arrest rate for juveniles actually dropped slightly between 1991 and 1993: 16,036 per 100,000 were arrested in 1989, 16,893 per 100,000 were arrested in 1991, and 16,681 per 100,000 were arrested in 1993. Juvenile arrest rates for property offenses decreased and juvenile arrest rates for violent offenses increased between 1989 and 1993. National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Selected National Statistics on Juvenile Arrests and Detention.  October, 1995. There are more adolescents in the population so there are more juvenile arrests, but this does not justify giving up on rehabilitative approaches. Based on 1992 data before the juvenile arrest rate dropped, the Department of Justice acknowledged that juveniles are not responsible for most of the increase in violent crime. "If juvenile violence had not increased between 1988 and 1992, the U.S.violent crime rate would have increased 16% instead of 23%." Juvenile Offenders and Victims. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 1995. p. iv. 
2 DeMuro, Paul, "Where Do We Go from Here? Unpublished reported to the Casey Foundation, 1995.
3 Parent, Dale. "Planning a Boot Camp," prepared for the Office of Justice Programs Boot Camp Technical Assistance Workshop, April 1, 1995.

4 Altschuler, David and Troy Armstrong. Intensive Aftercare for High-Risk Juveniles. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, September, 1994.