Boot camps for young offenders are back – the psychological evidence that they don’t work never went away
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Boot camps for young offenders are back – the psychological evidence that they don’t work never went away

“Recruitment camps” for young people who have committed serious crimes are back. The coalition government has promised to pilot “military-style academies” by mid-year – despite extensive international and New Zealand evidence that boot camps do not reduce reoffending rates.

Extensive media coverage and expert analyzes were optimistic. Less encouraging, however, was the Children’s Minister’s announcement that he had rejected expert advice that the training camp model was flawed and ineffective.

So why do we keep returning to interventions that don’t work? In the case of boot camps, there are at least three possible explanations.

First, they appeal to politicians who want to appear tough on crime while encouraging the possibility of rehabilitation.

Second, boot camps seem to have a strong appeal to common sense: people want to believe that military structure and discipline can transform young people’s lives, and this belief outweighs conflicting evidence.

Thirdly, boot camps can take many forms, so you can avoid evidence of their ineffectiveness by arguing, with the Minister, that improvements will be made this time.

But this seems unlikely when the fundamental characteristics of boot camps – particularly strong discipline – are the main reason they don’t work. To understand why, we need to look at the psychology of punishment and behavior change.

Limits of punishment

As children, we learn through direct experience or observation of others that if we touch a hot stove, we can get burned. People tend to assume that punishment works the same way: after punishment, we change our behavior.

In practice, and especially in the criminal justice system, punishment rarely works this way.

It has long been argued that punishment that is immediate, certain and severe will deter crime. However, most offenses initially go undetected, punishment is often delayed and tougher penalties have not been shown to deter crime. In particular, punishment does not appear to prevent serious crimes from being punished.

Punishment also tells someone what they shouldn’t do, not what they should do. In fact, punishment may have the opposite effect, leading to more of the behavior you were trying to prevent. To learn new behaviors, young people need praise and encouragement.

When punishment meets trauma

Perhaps the main problem with the assumption that young people who have seriously offended “just need a little discipline” is that they have often already experienced more – and harsher – discipline than most. We can also call it “abuse.”

Recent evidence from New Zealand showed that 95% of a sample of 63 young people involved in ‘ram raiding’ events were at risk of family harm; 65% reported five or more such incidents.

Decades of research on the impact of childhood abuse and trauma tell us that these types of experiences have a significant impact on development. Children tend to have poor understanding of emotions, low self-esteem, trouble forming healthy relationships, and hypervigilance about perceived threats.

When young people with such difficulties are subjected to harsh discipline in boot camps, they are likely to associate their treatment with the serious physical damage done to them in the past, causing further anxiety and stress. Without healthy ways of dealing with these emotions, further destructive behaviors, including aggression, are likely.

Just as young people tend to engage in behaviors (such as violence) shown to them by others, they also tend to adopt the attitudes of those around them. These often include negative views about society in general, especially towards authority figures.

Due to the strong link between these attitudes and reoffending, interventions should focus on changing these attitudes.

However, research suggests that, at best, boot camps have no effect on such attitudes. At worst, a focus on discipline can reinforce unhelpful attitudes and hinder the ability to establish a therapeutic relationship.

A working therapeutic relationship is perhaps the most important feature of effective behavior change interventions.

Focus on what we know works

Boot camps don’t seem like they’re going away. They appear to be popular with the public and are therefore likely to remain popular with politicians.

But the evidence is clear: in the various forms tried so far, they do not reduce reoffending. This is most likely due to the limitations of punishment as a method of changing behavior and the background of the young people sent to these camps.

However, this does not mean that these young people cannot be helped. There is strong evidence that several different interventions – those that are therapeutic in nature, involve appropriate support people and work to build skills to live ‘prosocially’ – can reduce re-offending and other anti-social behavior.

It also does not mean that young people who have seriously committed crimes should be exempt from the consequences. However, we should be honest about the purpose and likely outcome of these consequences, and accept that punishment alone will not change behavior.

One of the most telling findings from boot camp research is that camps with a rehabilitation component are more effective at reducing recidivism than other models. Some may cite this as evidence that boot camps can be effective.

We do not agree. If the reason some boot camps are effective is because they have a rehabilitation component, why bother with the boot camp aspect? Why not focus on what works?