No more boot camps

April 26, 2002

REPUBLICAN U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. didn't surprise us this week when he chose the state's juvenile justice problems for one of his first pronouncements in his gubernatorial campaign. After all, this is a major issue on which his likely Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is vulnerable.

But he did very much alarm us when he said some form of boot camps could be effective in rehabilitating juvenile offenders, and he would consider reviving them in Maryland. Boot camps have a tainted recent history in this state, and even with the best safeguards, resurrecting them represents a potentially dangerous sideshow.

Laudably, Mr. Ehrlich says his goal was not merely politics but substantive discussion. He sought not just to draw attention to Ms. Kennedy's leadership failures on juvenile justice but to begin seriously talking about changing a dysfunctional state system -- one that he would have to manage as governor.

In the late 1990s, Ms. Townsend heavily touted her efforts to deter mounting juvenile crime, including setting up three of these paramilitary camps in Western Maryland. An ugly tragedy of beaten and injured kids ensued, the camps were closed, high-level officials fired and the state Department of Juvenile Justice came under well-deserved, continuing criticism. Last month, the state paid $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit by 890 former boot camp inmates.

While quick to underscore that these camps were negligently run, Mr. Ehrlich -- as part of a comprehensive proposal he is developing on juvenile justice -- says the state ought to figure out why some camps elsewhere claim positive results. He cites Florida's recent claims of a somewhat lower recidivism rate for moderate-risk graduates of its camps.

Ironically, it was left to a state juvenile justice agency spokesman to note that this is contrary to the best national research on such camps. We agree. The short history of boot camps -- they came of age nationally in the 1990s -- is that they are not particularly effective. And far too often all across the country, just as in Maryland, they've led to abuses; several other states have shut down or are phasing out their camps.

Mr. Ehrlich says boot camps could be effective for certain juveniles if the state also provided appropriate mental health services and strong follow-up care once inmates are released. He's right that the absence of such services was a big part of the violence directed against the teens at the three Maryland boot camps.

But in entertaining the boot camp concept, he's distracting attention from some of the reforms most needed by the state agency: drastically improving mental health and after-care services for all juvenile offenders.

Give Mr. Ehrlich credit for taking these problems seriously, not just in political terms. Maryland's juvenile justice system remains fraught with problems, and it's still not entirely clear what Ms. Townsend is doing about them. This is a weighty campaign issue -- one that warrants detailed, well-thought-out proposals from all candidates for governor.

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