Everyone agrees that juvenile crime should be taken seriously, but experts often disagree about what should be done. Two once-popular approaches, both based on aggressive shock tactics, have failed to deliver the promised results. One is participation in “Scared Straight” tours of correctional institutions; the other is enrollment in “boot camps” that were supposed to develop self-control and respect for authority.

Although Scared Straight tours look impressive in TV depictions, research has shown that they do little to deter juvenile crime. Some studies, in fact, show that offenders are more, not less, likely to break the law after participating in a Scared Straight program. Today the U.S. Department of Justice discourages Scared Straight programs, and states that rely heavily on them risk losing federal funding.

Research has uncovered a number of problems with the tours:

  • Practices and quality vary widely from institution to institution
  • Often the tours are designed without input from professionals who work with troubled youth
  • Juvenile offenders have reported thefts and sexual propositions during the tours
  • The traumatic tone may do more harm than good to impressionable youths
  • An isolated one-shot approach is insufficient to change youthful attitudes and behavior

At the same time that Scared Straight tours were gaining popularity, many states funded boot camps that imposed strict discipline on lawbreaking youths. But in 2006, abuse charges and a death caused Florida—one of the leaders of the movement—to ban juvenile boot camps. More deaths followed in other states.

Although boot camps still exist, they are no longer viewed as a perfect remedy for juvenile crime. Critics cite high costs and disappointing re-offender rates, and they ask whether shock and aggression actually instill maturity and self-control in juvenile offenders. Professionals who work with young people also question whether a paramilitary setting is effective for offenders who already harbor anti-authority issues. Inflaming already angry juveniles through humiliation and harsh treatment may aggravate rather than resolve behavior issues.

Another serious problem is that isolated settings, untrained personnel, and a punitive philosophy can create an atmosphere that allows abuse to flourish. Most important, critics question whether boot-camp regimens instill the skills, attitudes, and habits that participants will need later on for success at school and work.

More recently a new approach—the LAPD’s aggressive Juvenile Impact Program—has been met with a mixture of applause and disapproval. In a 2008 video about the program, children and teens are ordered to roll through mud while an officer sprays them with a hose. Angry officers stand at close range and yell into participants’ faces. While the film rolls, the narrator notes that these juveniles have been guilty of defying their parents, skipping school, staying out late, and talking back. Some of the children are only nine years old. Is such a drastic approach really necessary—and does it make a permanent difference?

A 2009 video depiction of the LAPD program tries to put a more positive spin on the program: Joe Marrone, an officer with the program, extends a welcome to the youthful participants and addresses them as “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Later, talking to the camera, he explains that yelling is necessary to ensure that everyone hears what he says, and he adds that he imposes stress on participants in order to teach them how to handle it. He notes that the children typically have “very low family support,” and the program aims to improve communication between parent and child. The success rate, he says, is about 80%. (The earlier video cites a 75% success rate.)

Is LAPD’s program an improvement on traditional boot camps? The answer seems to be yes. (A recent newspaper story notes that the mud rolling has been eliminated.) One important difference from traditional boot camps is the strong parental component: Parents must attend weekly classes where they work on communication, problem-solving skills, and alternatives to the yelling and hitting often used to discipline children.

More important, the LAPD program makes parents—not boot camp officials—responsible for the program’s success. The 12-week boot camp is in session only on Saturdays, from 8 am to 3 pm. For the rest of the week, children live at home and attend school as they did before. The once-a-week schedule dramatically lessens costs (entirely borne by the Los Angeles Police Foundation) and allows participants to practice their new skills in a normal family setting. Home life, according to some experts, is a much more appropriate place for young people—even troubled ones—than a regimented boot camp.

As time passes and more data becomes available, observers will be able to make a more thorough assessment of the LAPD Juvenile Impact Program. Meanwhile experts continue to search for effective ways to deal with youthful offenders.

One issue that needs additional attention is adolescent brain development, which we now know—thanks to advancements in brain-scan technology—to be a slow and difficult process. Adolescent do not fully develop the capacity to think through the consequences of their behavior until well into adulthood. That insight, courtesy of neuroscience, might explain why only a tiny percentage of youthful offenders go on to become lifetime criminals. Can programs be developed to help adolescent brains make that important transition into adult thinking? Some studies suggest, for example, that mentoring may be the answer.

If that is true, could parents become their children’s mentors? Experts have long assumed that the answer is no: Juvenile lawbreakers were believed to come from dysfunctional families with parents who are incompetent or absent.

But recent studies suggest that bad families may not really be the problem: Many juvenile offenders have well-adjusted brothers and sisters who never enter the justice system. Far from causing a troubled child’s misbehavior, many parents beg for help long before law enforcement finally steps in. Could early family intervention be the answer?

One thing is certain: Juvenile crime continues to create problems for families, communities, and the offenders themselves—and communities, law-enforcement professionals, and experts on child development are still searching for answers.

Learn more about this article here:

Link to the 2008 LAPD Juvenile Impact Program video: http://youtu.be/nNwDQZ_ue1I

Link the 2009 LAPD video: http://youtu.be/1MNPmfjqn7s

A 2012 newspaper article about the LAPD Juvenile Impact Program: http://www.dailynews.com/ci_21182278/van-nuys-graduation-celebrates-kids-triumph-lapd-boot?source=most_viewed

An academic evaluation of treatment approaches for troubled youth: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD002796/abstract

A radio feature about adolescent brain development: www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124119468

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.