Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ending 'Boot Camp' Sentences In Texas

State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) is on a crusade to abolish "boot camp" sentences.

So-called "boot camp" programs started popping up in the mid-80s. These paramilitary style camps sought to use military indoctrination methods to help people correct certain behaviors. Since then, they have gained popularity for a variety of purposes from self-esteem to weight control to smoking cessation.

Among these boot camps are those aimed towards first-time non-violent criminal offenders. The camps were designed to instill discipline and redirect criminals' energies towards more positive and rewarding activities. They sought to reduce recidivism, or the likelihood of return to the criminal behaviors that got the inmates in trouble in the first place.

Now, John Whitmore has filed legislation to prohibit justices within the state of Texas from sentencing offenders to these alternative incarceration and rehabilitation programs.

SB 345 plainly states that, if passed, persons of any age will no longer be sentenced to "boot camps". The bill allows for those sentenced at the time of execution to remain in the program until complete or custody is transferred to another institution (usually due to unsatisfactory participation).

S.B. No. 345 
relating to the abolition of the state boot camp program. 
       SECTION 1.  The following are repealed: 
             (1)  Section 8, Article 42.12, Code of Criminal Procedure; and 
             (2)  Section 499.052, Government Code.
       SECTION 2.  (a)  On and after the effective date of this Act: 
             (1)  a judge may not recommend a person for placement in the state boot camp program under Section 499.052, Government Code; and 
             (2)  a participant in the state boot camp program remains a participant in the program only until the later of the following dates: 
                   (A)  the date on which the convicting court suspends further execution of the sentence and reassumes custody of the person; or 
                   (B)  the date on which the Texas Department of Criminal Justice transfers the person to another unit in the department. 
       (b)  Section 8, Article 42.12, Code of Criminal Procedure, and Section 499.052, Government Code, repealed by this Act, are continued in effect for the limited purpose of the orderly abolition of the state boot camp program created by those provisions.
       SECTION 3.  This Act takes effect September 1, 2013.

In recent years, many of these camps have come under fire for being ineffective. In fact, national studies on the adult camps have demonstrated recidivism rates to be the same as for standard incarceration. The most cited reason is that the boot camps don't offer any form of program to assist the inmates in re-entering society after successfully completing the program.

Other studies counter that attrition rates in the program should be taken into account when calculating recidivism. Those who "go AWOL" or fail to participate satisfactorily may be counted in the recidivism calculations when program failures should not be.

The success of these boot camps in cases of voluntary enrollment is simple. Just as in joining the military, the participants have a clear goal in mind. They just seek structure and motivation to get them there and put them on the path of continual improvement. The military basic indoctrination program (Basic Combat Training, or "Boot Camp") is a very successful tool in doing so. It promotes drive and motivation to overcome obstacles and succeed both as an individual and as a member of a team.

Compulsory enrollment may lack that founding desire in the participants. Military basic training revolves around the concept that the students want to be there in the first place. The military has been a volunteer force since the mid-1970s. Even when basic consisted of draftees and volunteers, the volunteers responded more positively to the training, making it more effective. In the military, Soldiers want to graduate Basic, graduate Advanced Training, get to their first units, and do the job they enlisted to do.

To make the compulsory enrollment, or sentence, work, the programs need to anchor to the inmates' goals. If they truly want to correct their criminal behavior, then the program has a good start. If the inmate sees nothing wrong with stealing, for example, the program may not be as effective. In considering the sentence, justices may want some form of confirmation that participants truly have rehabilitation as one of their main goals. Other goals may be to develop a successful work ethic and to develop positive job and social skills.

Other considerations for a successful boot camp program would be the ages of the inmates. The adult models would probably work best on first-time offenders under the age of 25. While maturity can aid enlistees in the military, it may hamper criminals in correctional paramilitary programs. The "can't teach old dogs..." clause may apply. Also, recidivism and re-incarceration studies demonstrate that younger offenders are more prone to return to crime than older offenders. The recidivism rates of those under 24 are double the rates of those over 45. Those 24 and younger are the ones who would benefit more from such a program.

These camps for teenage offenders also stand a better chance of success. However, certain adjustments should be considered. Though a notorious supporter of socialism, Mother Jones published an insightful article on one teen's tragic experience with a boot camp for teens. The girl was not in good physical shape. No special considerations were given for her. The girl collapsed and died of a heat stroke.

Now the Mother Jones article points to a single camp where the cadre needed better training. Personnel who served as Non-Commissioned Officers, school cadre, or Drill Instructors in the military receive training that would have identified the risks to heat casualties, assessed it at the early stages, and taken appropriate measures. The cadre at this particular camp did not.

What the incident does demonstrate is that the physical and medical fitness of the inmates need to be assessed and addressed by the court prior to such a sentence. If a candidate is obese and in poor physical condition, the program needs to address that inmate's individual physical fitness needs. That doesn't mean excusing the inmate from "gym class". IT means tailoring the program so the inmate can progress at a healthy rate. A three mile run for an obese person should be a goal, not a minimum starting point.

Military indoctrination follows a specific formula of tearing down and building up. The idea is to tear away at the bad habits and replace them with positive alternatives. It means to shame bad behaviors and reward good ones until that reward self-originates as pride in accomplishment of a mission. The same techniques are used by sports teams.

These stand a better chance of success if the participants/inmates want to be there. Perhaps the sentences should be issued as alternatives to other sentences, giving the criminals the option if they can qualify for the programs. This would make them voluntary alternatives rather than alternative compulsory sentences. That would increase their success.

The "drop-out", "AWOL", or non-attendance rates in teen boot camps for at-risk youth can be mitigated with a better screening process for candidates. This same screening process would include some key factors that may mitigate other failings within the programs. For example, physical assessments should be done as well as medical screenings. Psychological screenings should also be included, but not, necessarily, as disqualifying criteria. Cases involving abuse or neglect need to be addressed so that the program cadre can be equipped to contend with those as well. In addition, family problems need to be considered. An "at risk" youth who has a younger sibling left with abusive parents is more prone to "go over the hill" than a single child, for example. Same with a candidate with very ill family members.

These will also help combat recidivism. A Licensed Professional Counselor or equivalent with background experience in case management should be assigned to the inmate. This relationship should be established during the screening process. It should continue through the boot camp with regular sessions. Then, the inmate should go through a half-way program with the same LPC/Case Manager. This allows for a continuity of rehabilitation and grants the inmate stability.

The Case Manager needs to be equipped at the level of an LPC, with competitive pay and benefits. Merely handling records and getting status reports is not enough. An amount of clinical therapy needs to be part of the process in order for the inmate to establish goals and readjust their behaviors and attitudes. This requires far more skills than a baccalaureate degree in psychology, social work, or criminal justice can provide. Of course, any business unwilling to pay qualified personnel with masters degrees their fair market value will be able to attract adequately qualified personnel.

That LPC/Case Manager could not only manage the rehabilitation and reintegration process, but provide clinical therapy along the way. One other function the LPC/Case manager could serve is as a conduit of oversight to insure against abuse or neglect within the boot camps and half-way houses. The LPC/Case Manager could give the inmates a point of contact for redress of legitimate concerns as well as one capable of referring the inmates for advocacy if justified. 

The case load would also need to be kept reasonable so each client/inmate would receive the attention required for successful participation. That would be similar to class sizes in charter schools, no more than 15 inmates per LPC/Case manager.

The military has programs for those separating at the end of their contracts, retirement, or other discharges. In the US Army, the program is called ACAP. It includes job search techniques, classes in reintegrating into civilian culture, and other necessary skills. The same concept needs to be included in any boot camp program.

Inmates may do well in the boot camp program. However, once left on their own, afterward, they no longer have that structure in place to keep them on track. A half-way program such as the halfway houses run by Crosspoint, Inc. combined with the boot camps would grant an effective means to combat recidivism that neither is capable of achieving on its own.

This is where the LPC/Case Manager performs those "ACAP" function in a structured manner. The steps in employing the lessons learned from the boot camp are taken like wading step by step into a pool rather than being tossed into a deep end without swimming lessons. The LPCs will be able to assist in the inmates overcoming the environmental factors that led to their incarceration in the first place. The boot camp experience would give them the confidence to overcome those obstacles in a positive manner, with self-confidence and self-reliance.

The programs don't need to be abolished. It has too many merits to be discarded. However, reforms, continuity and oversight need to be enacted in order to insure success. With these common sense changes, the programs can be far more cost-effective for taxpayers than the inevitable long-term incarcerations that will eventually come from recidivism.