By LIZ AUSTIN PETERSON
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Harris County may scrap rigorous physical training and rigid military-style drills at its Delta Boot Camp in favor of a program that uses therapy to attack the emotional and behavioral problems that led the young people into crime, officials said Wednesday.
The county opened a juvenile boot camp in 1994 to offer chronic young offenders one last chance to shape up before they would be shipped off to do hard time at a Texas Youth Commission facility. Officials hoped the facility’s strong emphasis on military structure, drill and discipline would help the 14- to 16-year-old residents change from trouble-making boys into responsible men.
But Harris County Juvenile Probation chief Harvey Hetzel said Wednesday that research since has shown that young offenders are more likely to respond to counseling and education than to discipline alone.
“Our program’s weakness has always been the absence of a therapeutic component,” Hetzel said.
Board seems receptive
He said his department is in the early stages of evaluating what kind of program should replace the boot camp, where the new program should be located and whom it should serve. He said calisthenics and military drills may have a place in the new program, but will not be a priority.
Members of the county Juvenile Board, the panel of judges that oversees the department, seemed keen on change Wednesday at the 144-bed boot camp outside of Katy.
“You can’t just teach somebody discipline without taking them to the next step in terms of jobs or education,” said District Judge Pat Shelton, a juvenile court judge.
Juvenile boot camps sprang up across the country in the early 1990s amid a national push to get tough on crime.
However, studies soon showed the facilities did not improve recidivsm rates for youths and in some cases were detrimental to young people who had experienced violence and abuse at home, said Gaylene Armstrong, an associate professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University who has studied juvenile boot camps extensively.
Treating juvenile offenders’ problems with substance abuse, mental illness and anger management, or even just offering them a basic education, was found to be more beneficial than having them run laps and do push-ups, Armstrong said.
“Even though from a public perspective, maybe some people would say, ‘These people did something bad, let’s really punish them,’ in the long term that’s not going to do much for us as a society because they’re going to end up back in the community and their problems aren’t going to be addressed,” she said.
Deaths in other states
Hetzel said the recidivism rate for boot camp residents is about the same as for graduates of the department’s other programs. He said he believes the number would be higher if he could track offenders after they turn 17 and enter the adult criminal justice system, but he has no way doing that now.
The deaths of inmates at public and private juvenile boot camps in Florida, South Dakota and Arizona and stories about abuses at similar facilities in Maryland and Georgia prompted many states and local governments to shutter their camps in the past 10 years, Armstrong said.
At one point there were boot camps in almost every state; now only a handful remain.
TYC staffing problems
The Texas Youth Commission closed its Sheffield Boot Camp in remote West Texas last year, but TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said the decision was based primarily on problems finding enough employees to staff the remote facility.
He said the facility was a boot camp in name only by the end of its 13-year lifespan because many of the military style techniques used at its inception were discredited and abandoned by the early 2000s.
Hetzel said his department has never been as physically or verbally harsh on boot camp residents as an adult or private program may be.
“We get the kids in shape and we want to get them to be part of a team and do that part of it, but we’re not to the point of just trying to degrade them,” he said. “It’s not at all the traditional boot camp, the perception that’s out there.”