Nine of 10 juveniles who attend Pinellas facility go on to be arrested again.

Boot Camp Has Little Success

Nine of 10 youths sent to the Pinellas County boot camp end up where they started: back in custody. "Are we really being effective in what we're trying to do?" asked Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats. "Somewhere, there's a breakdown in the system here."

A study Coats requested shows that 666 of the 740 youths who attended the camp from November 1993 to November 2005 were arrested after completing the program. Of those, 607 were convicted or given some form of juvenile judgment. Coats said he is disappointed but not ready to shut down the program.

Instead, the sheriff wants to set up a residential facility to temporarily house boot camp graduates, rather than return them to communities where they first committed crimes. In a few months, he said, he intends to approach the Pinellas County Commission with a proposal.

Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart said he was stunned that so many boot camp graduates went on to commit more crimes. He said the idea of a residential facility was a good one, but wants to know how much it would cost. "I can see the advantage of such a plan," Stewart said. But such a residential facility, he added, "could be a very expensive proposition." The boot camp already costs about $2.7 million a year. The state pays almost $2 million of that. Pinellas County pays the rest, nearly $762,000.

Florida's boot camps have been under increasing scrutiny since the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson on Jan. 6, a day after he was roughed up by guards at the Bay County camp. A surveillance video showed that a half-dozen guards punched, kneed and restrained the youth, who complained of breathing difficulties during the enrollment procedure. The Bay County medical examiner ruled that Martin did not die as a result of those blows, but family members and other authorities have disputed that finding. Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober is investigating, and Anderson's body was exhumed Friday in preparation for a second autopsy in Tampa today.

The Pinellas boot camp houses juvenile male offenders ages 14 to 18 who have at least one felony conviction and are designated a moderate risk. The Pinellas boot camp has handled 48 to 102 recruits a year since 1999. The state, which tracks youths for a year after they finish boot camp, said 61 percent of the youths who attended the Pinellas boot camp in 2003-2004 were subsequently convicted of another crime or given some form of criminal judgment. That was the worst recidivism rate among the state's boot camps. In previous years, Pinellas has ranked near the middle.

Many graduates of the Pinellas camp end up in jail. About 52 percent of them are charged with a felony. Often, they're in trouble for violent crimes or crimes involving property and drugs. Steven Chapman, a juvenile justice researcher and program evaluator, said the state's boot camps did have some success in turning around youths. In 2003-2004, for example, the state's boot camps had a total recidivism rate of 41 percent. That same year, by comparison, halfway houses for moderate-risk youths had a recidivism rate of 44 percent.

Hunter Hurst, a senior research assistant at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, said boot camps were created out of the belief that giving youths an intense experience would affect them in ways that a halfway house would not. But Hurst said it was difficult to find studies that proved whether boot camps had much success in helping kids who were in trouble.

"I think boot camps are misguided," Hurst said. "There are other experiences -- like wilderness camps, for example -- that could be more constructive."

Abhi Raghunathan with Cathy Wos
13 March 2006


home / Previous feature