What – Boot camp?

Boot camp, again? Yes, I’m afraid it’s an enduring election issue. Regimented places of enforced residence designed to change the hearts, minds and behaviour of young people who are out of control. Boot camps tend to be short-term and usually emphasise self-reliance and self discipline. What’s different about the latest election ploy promoted by Bill English is that to me at least, it makes sense.

We are told about fifty of the most violent and persistent young offenders aged between 14 and 17 will be incarcerated in an army camp for a year, where training will include addictions treatment and literacy lessons. Sounds good to me and I’m sure a good number of Asian shop owners will agree.

There has been almost universal protest that boot camps don’t work but I’m not aware of any sensible alternative put forward. This is different, it’s not short term and those who don’t comply will go to prison. And let’s not forget these persistent adolescent criminals are a serious danger to the public. However, there are some obstacles.

Before sending these young men to 12 months life in an army camp the judge must first sentence them to imprisonment – suspended for one year. But suspended sentences, which were useful in my view, were done away with years ago.

Another problem is the very reason these young offenders are such a problem: their couldn’t care less attitudes. With a bit of luck some of them could find the structure of life in an army camp so refreshing they take to it. On the other hand we are talking about a bunch of old hands where the justice system is concerned. What they will know is that prison is cushy by comparison.

The answer to changing the attitudes and beliefs of most of these young men is, as most people have known for decades, to prevent the abuse, neglect, and antisocial environment their parents have subjected them to in their first years. Easier said than done. But in the meantime we are all better off if these young criminals are out of harm’s way for a year.  And yes, no matter what labelling theorists say, at the present time they are criminals. If they have the courage, and it takes courage, they will have opportunities to change the label themselves.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.