The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 27, 2000
March 27, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 29


Q&A: IPS's David Altschuler on Maryland Boot Camps

By Glenn Small
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

David M. Altschuler (pictured at right) is a principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies who specializes in juvenile crime and who is considered to be a leading authority on aftercare issues relating to juvenile justice. Altschuler recently completed work with the governor's task force looking into allegations of neglect and abuse at three Maryland boot camps for juvenile delinquents.

How did you get involved in the governor's task force?

The formal title of the task force is the Juvenile Offender Aftercare Assessment Team. This particular assessment team is "part two" because there was an initial team charged specifically with looking at the allegations of abuse in the three boot camps in Western Maryland. #It was that first assessment team [that] looked at the allegations of abuse and corroborated those allegations.

At the time the first team was appointed, it was also announced that there would be a second assessment team, which would focus on the community supervision/aftercare piece. The original series in The Baltimore Sun discussed an abuse and neglect situation. You can think of it in terms of the abuse part related to what was going on at the boot camp; the neglect piece was once they left the boot camp and went into the community. We were charged with taking a look at the community supervision/aftercare piece. They approached me because they were aware of my work on the subject of transition aftercare.

There were 12 members of the assessment team task force. What did you do to look into this?

We took testimony from the Department of Juvenile Justice staff. We had folks who were contractors or service providers come and speak to us about their experiences. We brought in some people involved in aftercare, parole, transition-type programs from other parts of the country, to tell us how they were operating. We conducted a performance audit, in which records on a number of cases were collected and analyzed, so we could get a clear picture of the state of the record-keeping system. We also had focus groups with juveniles who had been involved in the aftercare program and with some parents who were involved. We did a focus group with probation officers from around the state. We met with several judges.

So we really, I think, conducted a fairly wide-ranging exploration from varying perspectives of what was going on and what was not going on with the department and its whole transition and aftercare approach.

For someone who doesn't know what a boot camp is, can you describe what it was supposed to do?

There were around 50 juvenile boot camps spread across the country, but I think within the last year or so the popularity has waned considerably. Maryland is just the most recent instance where the boot camps have been shut down. The idea behind the boot camp, which was pioneered with adult offenders in Georgia and Oklahoma, was that this would form an intermediate sanction; rather than send an individual for a term of confinement in a correctional facility, those who qualified could be placed into shorter-term residences and boot camps. During the number of months that individuals are in these boot camps, with some variations from place to place, one of the common threads is the military regimentation and discipline aspect.

In addition to the military structure, discipline, regimentation, marching and so on, at least in theory, there are supposed to be other components related to education, counseling or drug treatment and also a focus on the transition and re-entry back into the community. The fact of the matter is, there has been a very uneven record in the provision of these other kinds of services. And some of the boot camps have utilized the initial period of induction as a time to, quote-unquote, break down the individual, presumably based on some model of military boot camp, which, perhaps with the exception of the Marines, was long ago abandoned.

The way it was sort of pitched to the public was as a kind of a '90s "scared straight, get tough with these juveniles who are causing problems and let's, you know, make them exercise, work them out, supposedly like the military, and then they come out all spiffy and everything will be wonderful." But that's not really what happened?

The analogy has never worked, quite frankly. The analogy breaks down when you think about the purposes of the military boot camp. In the military, the boot camp was all about weeding out folks who wouldn't be suitable for a military career.

That's quite different in a correctional environment, where that's not the idea at all. More than that, in the military boot camp, the whole point behind the training and the discipline is preparation for a career; beyond that, there is access to a range of benefits associated with military life and retirement. This is not consistent with correctional objectives and purposes. In most cases, there has been very little attention on what exactly was going to be the next step for offenders when they leave the boot camp. That has been, in fact, one of the problems. So the military analogy breaks down there.

In that military analogy, as you said, someone leaves the boot camp and lands a job, with food and health care and pay and benefits and something to do. But when someone graduated from a Maryland juvenile boot camp, what did they end up with?

Almost nothing. And I think it might even be the case that they were worse off because the way in which they were conditioned and regimented and socialized in that boot camp atmosphere in no way prepared them for what they were likely to encounter when they went back home.

To the extent that they actually bought into the boot camp, they were in for a rude awakening once back in the community. And, in fact, the reports in The Sun document rather clearly that the rate of failure among the group of youngsters that it followed was astoundingly high. Almost all of them ended up back on drugs, back involved in breaking the law.

And The Sun also found that the extent and nature of involvement that the aftercare workers had with the youngsters was so minimal that it could hardly provide supervision, let alone any kind of meaningful interaction or referral into other kinds of services that would be provided.

As you said, the assessment team found that the aftercare, or lack of aftercare, went across the board, not just in boot camps. You did come up with specific suggestions or recommendations. What are a few of those?

What we came up with were 1) recommendations that relate to the actual administrative structure and organization of the agency, 2) recommendations and issues that relate to the work force and 3) recommendations and issues that relate to the program that they're providing.

With respect to the organization and structure of the agency, I think it's fair to say that the task force found that the department was organized in a manner that in no way, shape or form encouraged the kind of systematic, collaborative planning and implementation that would be required to actually do transition and aftercare. And while we did not come up with a specific reorganization plan, we identified some of the difficulties that need to be addressed.

With respect to the staff itself, it turns out there are enormous problems. High turnover appears to be a function of very low pay and also very low morale. Some people stay so short [a time] that they never actually get the full training that is available to them through the training division before they leave and go off to a neighboring jurisdiction that pays a lot more. So there's a work force problem.

There is difficulty in that supervisors have to oversee such large numbers of staff that they are not in a position to do much staff monitoring and in turn are not in a position to review what those staff people are doing on particular cases. Partly because there are so many new staff coming and going all the time, supervisors just don't have very much time to do some of the important routine things that would be required.

In terms of programming, there are real problems in getting families involved, of having qualified, trained people who can work with families that are in crisis. Many of these families are having difficulties that are very deep-seated and long-standing. And that requires some real sustained, concerted effort to work with families. You'll see quite an emphasis in our report on the need to deal with the family and not merely focus on the youngster.

One of the interesting findings was that we discovered that the standards of contact required for kids and their aftercare workers were so low as to be, for all intents and purposes, useless. And yet, even those meager standards couldn't be met.

So, a lot of what you've said--supervisors who have too many people to supervise, can't follow their own regulations, people who are coming and going very quickly because they're not getting enough training or pay--doesn't a lot of this boil down to how much money the agency has and how willing or unwilling politicians are to invest money in something that's not a glitzy ballpark?

Interestingly enough, they're willing to spend money on the building of correctional facilities, which is very, very expensive. So I don't know that I would agree with the premise that it's simply a matter of not enough money. Partly, it's a matter of how you spend the money you have. Given X number of dollars, you're still going to need to overhaul, reorganize and substantially change the way you do business. I think there's some money that's being spent very inefficiently and in very nonproductive ways. Spending huge amounts of the budget on the kids who get locked up, and spending relatively very little on the community piece, is, to me, just throwing away money.

The governor's budget reflects an increase, much greater than for other agencies in the state, for juvenile justice. And I do believe, for reasons that are outlined in the task force report, that more money is warranted. However, at the same time, it's going to take a very sustained, concerted, committed effort to restructure and revitalize that agency.