Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Boot Camps Don't Prevent Young Offenders from Reoffending

If boot camps don't work, then what does? Here's one possible answer...

Though I know parents would prefer to believe that boot camps help prevent troubled young people from continuing their delinquent behavior, in fact the evidence shows that quasi-military-like treatment programs for troubled youth don't prevent them committing more crime. What does work, however, may surprise you!

David Wilson and Doris MacKenzie recently published a review of studies done on 43 such camps. Each camp provides a militaristic environment, and is treating young people already involved with the courts. To be included in their analysis, each study had to be scientifically sound and include a comparison group of youth who were also under a court order but not attending the boot camp.

The good news is that about half the boot camps produced positive effects on the kids. The bad news is that about half the programs resulted in kids being more likely to reoffend! Simply put, boot camps don't do any better than other juvenile justice programs at preventing kids from committing crime.

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The fly in the ointment here is that half the boot camps did in fact produce some positive change. To explain why those camps worked better than the others, Wilson and MacKenzie explored lots of different explanations such as the nature of the offender him- or herself (did more serious offenders benefit from boot camps?) and whether there was aftercare treatment, or drug treatment as part of the boot camp experience. The only factor that they could find that distinguished boot camps that worked from those that didn't was whether the youth received counseling. That means a special relationship with a caring adult who focuses on the young person and his problems.

It's interesting that we want to believe that our children can be whipped into shape through harsh discipline. It's an outdated idea that needs to be put to rest. Instead, let's focus on providing our children with what they really need: safe, secure attachments to a caring adult. In my next blog I will share another study that proves this same point, but in a very different way.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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