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Boot camps

Military-style boot camps for young people who have been convicted of an offence

Estimated impact on violent crime:

HARMFUL

Evidence quality:

1 2 3 4 5

Cost:

1 2 3

Prevention Type

  • Tertiary

Setting

  • Custody
  • Military barracks

Themes

  • Diversion from the criminal justice system

What is it?

Boot camps are military-style residential camps for children who have offended. They typically involve children and young people above the age of 13. They involve strict discipline, short-term confinement and demanding physical tasks and aim to provide children with self-discipline which is maintained when they return to the community. Some camps combine the military regime with an emphasis on building positive relationships with staff or activities to develop positive behaviours and attitudes.

A stay at a boot camp is usually shorter than a custodial sentence, lasting between 90-180 days. They are typically run by the military or by correctional staff who are trained to use military-style discipline. Boot camps can involve a range of activities which are generally carried out under strict military discipline and supervision:

  • Intense physical exercise.
  • Military-style drills and ceremonies.
  • Swift punishment for misbehaviour.
  • Graduation ceremonies for young people who successfully complete the program which family members might be invited to attend.
  • Some boot camps will include education, vocational training classes, or therapeutic interventions like counselling or drug and alcohol treatment.
  • Some boot camps will have after-care support like help drawing up a long-term release plan, making connections to services and resources that help prevent reoffending.

Is it effective?

On average, boot camps are not likely to reduce violence and may cause harm.

The research suggests that young people who participate in a boot camp have been 6% more likely to become involved in future violent and non-violent crime. The impact of different programmes varies. Some studies found that boot camps had a positive impact and others found that boot camps had a stronger negative impact. However, the average harmful impact suggests that this is not a promising approach.

Researchers have attempted to understand why different types of boot camp have different impacts. This analysis suggests that boot camps were more likely to have a desirable impact if they involved counselling or therapeutic interventions. However, including other activities like aftercare support, education, vocational training or drug treatment did not seem to improve the impact.

The research suggests that young people who participate in a boot camp have been more likely to become involved in crime in the future.

How secure is the evidence?

Our confidence in the headline impact rating is high.

The rating is based on one high-quality systematic review which included 17 studies on the impact of boot camps.

Most of the research has been conducted in the USA. The evidence base includes one study of two boot camps in the UK. Both UK boot camps combined a military regime with life skills, educational and employment training. One boot camp did seem to have reduced reoffending one year after it ended. However, after two years neither boot camp appeared to have changed the reoffending rate.

How can you implement it well?

We reviewed evaluations of four different boot camps which provided information about implementation: an evaluation of boot camps in the UK in the 1990s and evaluations of two more recent boot camps in Australia.

These evaluations suggested that the programmes faced some common challenges and provide considerations for implementation of boot camps or similar residential programmes.

  • Include activities which support children with the difficulties that contributed to their offending. Programmes with counselling or therapeutic activities are associated with more positive impacts.
  • Avoid sending young people to remote locations, far from their families and communities. In all four programmes children were sent to boot camps far from home. This limited children’s access to their families and education and employment opportunities which could have supported community reintegration.
  • Plan for and provide high-quality aftercare. A common theme in the evaluations was the harm caused by poor provision for when children leave boot camps. Programmes failed to connect children to services who could help them or provide support for community reintegration. Better planning for aftercare could support children to make a positive return to normal life.
  • Consult the local community on the programme design. The Australian programmes met with resistance from the Aboriginal community who did not feel consulted on how their children were treated. The English boot camps were resisted by residents of the towns where they were located.

How much does it cost?

On average, the cost of boot camps is likely to be high.

Costs are likely to include securing a suitable site for the boot camp, site maintenance, exercise equipment, resources for education and vocational courses, and other costs associated with providing 24-hour residential care for young people. The salaries of trained military staff, prison officers, teachers and therapists are key costs to consider too.

Topic summary

  • Boot camps have the potential to cause harm. Other approaches are likely to be a better bet for future activity and research.
  • Boot camps were more likely to have beneficial impacts if they involved therapeutic or counselling activities.

Boot camps and shock incarceration – Oxford Bibliography entry
A bibliography with links to relevant articles.

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