Do boot camps work? Actually they don’t.

There is little doubt that youth crime is a costly problem for our society. I applaud the debate that is emerging to find workable solutions to what are complex issues. It is easy in the rhetoric of the debates (it is an election year after all) to make strong claims about getting tough on youth crime. It is arguable that getting tough on certain offenders will make them worse, not turn them around. We have enough evidence of this phenomenon from adult corrections experience.

Not all crime is the same and to treat it as such is to make serious errors in finding workable solutions.

Defining what youth crime actually is provides a useful starting point. It is also probably fair to say that most young people at some stage will engage in behaviour that is not legally sanctioned – for example, experimentation with alcohol and drug use, minor shoplifting, minor violence, under-age sexuality, and driving related behaviours.

Those of us who survived the adolescent years will have our own stories of youthful ‘risk taking’ behaviour. Many of these ‘normal’ behaviours will bring us into contact with the police and criminal justice system. The good news is that these testosterone driven behaviours diminish fair quickly after the teenage years. That is the good news.

It is those who start offending early (12 – 14 years) that we need to be giving attention to. We call these early onset offenders and we can predict the likelihood that they will be in the criminal justice system at age 30. Targeting this group is where will make the biggest inroads into youth crime as the rates of offending for this group are high. In other words this 20% accounts for around 80% of criminal activity.

What makes it difficult to intervene in youth crime?

A common mistake is that we treat youth offenders like mini adult offenders. Any parent will tell you that the teenage years constitute a period of marked changes in emotional regulation, a degree of unpredictable behavior, and risk of serious injury through risk taking behavior.

Guilt involves the appreciation of responsibility for negative outcomes. Shame on the other hand is associated with negative feelings about oneself on the basis of self perception of being unworthy or bad. Adolescents have diminished capacity, compared to adults, to think in terms of long-term consequences of their actions, to reflect upon their behavior and its effects on others, and to experience enduring feelings of guilt.
The most contemporary research on brain development indicates that our frontal lobe (the bit of the brain that is responsible for empathy and long-term consequence thinking) is not fully developed until around age 25. Now that is a very scary thought. If we accept this proposition then we need to carefully consider applying a different approach to intervening with youth.

What interventions are most effective?

In terms of effectiveness studies it is unequivocal that boot camps show no effectiveness. A reputable Washington study comprising 14 peer reviewed studies (2266 participants) showed no effectiveness at all. In fact all the ‘get tough’ interventions show no effectiveness or in fact made young people worse. The Scared Straight interventions increased crime by ten percent. It is clearly evident that shaming techniques with adolescents are the least effective responses to engaging them in change.
The approaches that have shown most promise (and we continue to try to find answers) are those based on good quality counselling and psychotherapy, family based interventions (getting parents to be parents and set boundaries), drug courts, sex offenders programmes, and educational programmes.

The commonality of the most effective strategies that habilitate youth offenders use cognitive behavioural approaches. In other words, addressing the attitudes and thinking that allow someone to break the law. The effect size (how much someone changes) is in the range of between 10 to 30% for these type of interventions.

I can understand the frustration of those who feel that young people are out of control and there being no sanctions to curb the problem. There is a lot of very good work with youth offenders being done in our communities based on currently research of what works. Let us be careful we do not undermine this work. Admittedly we can always do better.

If I am going to invest taxpayers’ money I know where I want to invest. It won’t be in boot camps.

Published on Tuesday, July 29th, 2008, under What Ken thinks

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