An emerging tool for throttling the small-time crack dealer is a rigorous 90 days in a good old-fashioned "boot camp." With drug czar William Bennett in the lead, enthusiasts forecast great benefits from these military-style facilities that are cropping up across the country.
Boot camps, we are told, give young culprits a strong measure of discipline along with the lesson that we are not going to tolerate their activities. A dose of shaved heads, push-ups and enforced obedience will deter inmates from even thinking about peddling drugs again. They will be shaped up and shipped out to join the mainstream of good citizens, sometimes even with new job skills. Moreover, boot camps are fast-turnaround programs in which large numbers of offenders can be quickly run through the system at a much lower cost than in conventional prisons.
If all this were true, boot camps would signal the rebirth of incarceration as a rehabilitative tool. For 15 years we have heard that rehabilitation in prison was a failed idea and that the explosion in the prison population took place simply to get criminals off the streets and deter potential offenders. But boot camp is supposed to be different. It's a sort of car wash for criminals--in one quick drive-through, the offender is cleansed of errant leanings and redirected toward a productive life.
Another crime-fighting fad caught our attention a few years ago. Every prison warden was pushed to replicate a program called Scared Straight. Youngsters from school classes would file into the depths of prisons to be verbally assaulted by a group of tough-looking, hardened cons. In the rawest of terms, kids were told to keep their lives in order or they, too, would end up in the mess they saw before them. The program was to be the magic potion that would stem our growing delinquency problem. But after a short flurry, it disappeared with hardly a trace. The cure for delinquency is too complicated to be scared into existence.
The boot camp fad also will pass when it becomes clear that it does little to thin the ranks of drug peddlers. With its veneer removed, the boot camp is just another version of the one-note theme that has been sounded for the past decade as the solution to crime--a pure, simple-minded and unsuccessful program of more and more incarceration. However, rather than disappear like Scared Straight, the boot camp facilities will be added to this country's growing roster of prisons in which more people will do more time.
The real answer to America's intolerable crime and crack problem is to be found by noticing who is in our prisons--inmates drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of the poor, black and Latino. Doing something about the conditions that generate this lopsided situation is complicated, but at its most basic level it means changing the environments in which the young see graffiti before they see beauty, hear gunshots before symphonies and feel despair before hope.
That's a tough order, but we can start by being honest about what does not work. Threatening drug sellers with penalties from boot camps to electric chairs is to fail to recognize the feebleness of deterrence in the criminal justice system. So long as drug dealing can put poor kids in BMWs, the humiliating shout of a drill sergeant is short-lived noise. Aggressive competitors in the drug trade are far more life-threatening than the specter of an electric chair. And the last thing the young drug dealer needs to learn from a boot camp encounter is how to be a bigger, better and more macho drug merchant.