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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Some Say Give Camp the Boot

Juveniles: Others want the experimental tri-counties facility for teen offenders kept as an option.

August 20, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly three years into an experimental boot camp aimed at reforming juvenile offenders, several officials say Ventura County should pull out of the program soon after its contract expires.

Officials say there no longer will be a need to send teen offenders to the Tri Counties Boot Camp in Santa Barbara County after a planned 420-bed youth detention center opens north of Oxnard in 2003.

Moreover, officials say recidivism rates show the boot camp has been no more effective in keeping teens out of trouble than local institutions.

"The boot camp was a stopgap measure to have a place to send the youths until we had the new center ready," Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long said.

But others argue the boot camp, with its emphasis on discipline and order and its isolated site in Los Padres National Forest, should remain an option.

"I think boot camp is a really good concept," said Judge Brian Back, who supervises Juvenile Court. "Even after the new center is up, I think shutting down the camp would be a bad decision."

The boot camp, which opened in October 1997, houses 40 juvenile offenders from Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. The youths, ages 13 to 17, spend three to six months at the rustic center in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Most of them are nonviolent offenders--busted for shoplifting, vandalism, property offenses and theft.

Facing severe overcrowding in local institutions, Ventura County was eager to sign a five-year contract in 1997 for boot camp bed space. But when the new center opens in El Rio, the county's 20 beds at the camp will be unnecessary, Chief Probation Officer Cal Remington said.

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So Remington said he will recommend that county leaders extend the contract for a year and then pull out of the program in 2003, citing the need for the county to make the most of its $23-million investment in the new center.

Remington said the boot camp was never meant to be a panacea.

In fact, he said camp graduates are just as likely as offenders from other institutions to get in trouble with the law again.

Of the 102 Ventura County teens who had graduated from the Tri Counties Boot Camp by the end of last year, nearly 75% had either committed a new crime or violated probation--a rate that is comparable with other institutions, probation officials say.

Those disappointing results are reflected across the state and nation.

In 1996, the California Youth Authority ended its experiment with boot camps after discovering that the graduates were just as likely as other parolees to return to crime once the rules of boot camp were lifted.

A U.S. Department of Justice study on juvenile boot camps in Ohio, Colorado and Alabama had similar results. The graduates need a comprehensive after-care plan, complete with employment, education and counseling, to stay out of trouble, the study showed.

"People think that intensive, military-type training is going to turn around an emotionally disturbed kid," said Dan Macallair, vice president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. "It's absurd. Boot camps are not the answer. They simply don't work."

Some county officials, however, say the recidivism rates don't tell the whole story. The regimented program instills discipline and order into the lives of troubled teens.

"Even though the recidivism numbers are high, we've had good results from the program," said Steven Dean, senior deputy probation officer. "The program offers such stability and structure that [the wards] don't want to leave. Regardless of the type of kid and the type of crime they've committed, boot camp is going to have some impact on them."

Probation officers say the boot camp isn't to blame for the number of youths who violate probation or break the law again. They say what is really needed is a post-boot camp program to help the teens get jobs, get back in school and get away from their gang-affiliated friends.

If all goes smoothly, 15-year-old Raul will graduate in just a few weeks and will return to his home in La Colonia. When he is out, Raul will meet with his probation officer a few times a week for three to six months. But he is worried it's not going to be enough.

"I'm scared of going back," he said. "I don't know what I'm gonna do. It's gonna be hard for me because I'm going to go back to the same environment."

Although the new detention center will offer similar camp-style programs, Back said the county should make the youths' stays at the boot camp longer rather than abandoning the beds when the new youth jail opens.

The average stay is 120 days, but youths can leave after 90 days if they get time knocked off for good behavior.

"All we want is to get the kids directed from the dark side to the good side," Back said. "The more availability we have for kids, the better."

The camp is a popular option, Back said. When parents find out their children are going to be sent away, they often request the boot camp. And youths say the camp is much better than Juvenile Hall.

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