Juvenile Boot Camps

Correctional programs designed to be similar to military basic training are called “boot camps.” Although there are some programs for youths at risk of delinquency, these vary widely, and most juvenile boot camps are designed for children adjudicated as delinquent. This entry describes the program and operations of typical boot camps for adjudicated youths, reviews the development of correctional boot camps, and examines how they have changed over time. It then discusses controversies concerning the risks and benefits of boot camps, including the issue of net widening, and reviews research on their effectiveness.

Most boot camps for adjudicated juveniles require that they serve 3 to 6 months in a boot-camp-type facility. The programs resemble those of military boot camps; for example, staff are usually called drill instructors, and staff and juveniles wear military-type uniforms. Youths must say “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” in response to staff, and they cannot speak unless spoken to or given permission to speak. There is a rigorous daily schedule of activities. Strict rules govern all facets of the juveniles’ activities and comportment. They are required to respond immediately to staff commands. Rule violations are punished immediately, referred to as summary punishments, often with some physical activity (e.g., pushups, running laps). If they do not comply with the rules of the program, the juveniles may be required to serve a longer period of time in another type of juvenile detention facility.

A Day in a Boot Camp

On a typical day in a boot camp, participants arise before dawn, dress quickly, and march in cadence to an exercise area, where they do calisthenics and other physical exercise. They return to their dormitory for quick showers and then march to the dining hall for breakfast. After breakfast, they may practice drill and ceremony until they march to their classrooms for the required educational activities. Later in the day, they may have other classroom activities such as cognitive skills training or drug treatment. Before dinner, they may again be required to practice drill and ceremony or participate in additional physical exercise. Evenings may include additional therapeutic programming or required homework. They are not permitted to watch television unless it is an educational program, nor do they have access to radios, other musical devices, or computer games.

Strict rules exist at mealtimes. Participants are required to stand at parade rest when the serving line is not moving and execute crisp military movements and turns when the line does move. They are often required to approach the table and stand at attention until ordered to sit and eat. Frequently, they must eat without conversation.

The Development of Correctional Boot Camps

Boot camps began in the adult correctional systems of Georgia and Oklahoma in the early 1980s. By the early 1990s, there were more than 21 programs for adults in 14 state correctional systems. Juvenile boot camps developed in the late 1980s. By the mid-1990s, approximately 35 juvenile boot camps were operating. The number of camps keeps varying because some of the old camps have closed down while other new camps have opened.

Several factors account for the rapid growth of correctional boot camps. One important influence was the conservative political climate of the 1980s. Politicians felt the need to be tough on crime. Many sanctions appeared to be “soft” on the criminal. Boot camps were a different story. Boot camps appealed to the “gut instincts” of a public that wanted criminals punished swiftly and harshly in a place where they were required to respect authority and obey rules.

Another important factor influencing the rapid development of the camps was the media. Boot camps provided powerful visual images of juveniles snapping to attention in response to staff members. The tough drill sergeant yelling at the young street thug made great television for a public that wanted to get tough responses to crime. It was ideal for the 60-second feature in the evening news.

Differences in Boot Camps

Juvenile boot camps have changed dramatically over time. The biggest change was in the move away from an emphasis on the basic training model. The first boot camps emphasized the basic military training with strict rules and discipline, physical training, and hard labor. Later, the camps began to emphasize other aspects such as education, leadership training, drug treatment, or cognitive skills. In fact, many of the camps no longer referred to themselves as “boot camps.” They used a variety of other names for the programs, such as leadership academy, leadership development, highly structured program for juveniles, or challenge program. While these programs still had strict rules and discipline, physical training, and drill and ceremony, they placed a greater focus on leadership, education, and other therapeutic activities.

Camps differ greatly in the amount of time devoted to different activities. Some still emphasize basic training, and the juveniles spend a great deal of time in physical training and drill and ceremony. Other camps focus on therapeutic activities such as drug treatment, cognitive skills training, vocational training, or education, and the daily schedule reflects this emphasis. Furthermore, the follow-up supervision and aftercare vary among camps. Some have a long-term aftercare program with therapeutic activities, other camps may have intensive supervision, and others may have little follow-up supervision or care. These differences depend, in part, on the philosophy of those who manage the programs or the correctional administrators who oversee the programs. Money available for programming is also an important factor in determining the type of activities included in the boot camp; therapeutic programming and aftercare may greatly increase the cost of the program.

Controversies over Juvenile Boot Camps

Boot camps have been controversial since they first opened. Advocates believe that the strict discipline and control in these camps is what these youths need. Many adults who have spent time in the military argue that this was a life-altering and positive experience for them, and camps can have the same impact on juvenile delinquents. Others point to the fact that the orderly environment and control help the youths focus on their problems and make positive changes in their lives. They believe that these undisciplined youths will prosper in an environment that requires them to obey and respect adults.

Critics of boot camps have other concerns. Correctional psychologists argue that the confrontational nature of the interactions do not reflect the type of supportive interpersonal interactions that are conducive to positive change. They maintain that 90 days of verbal abuse, push-ups, and marching cannot be expected to address the problems related to addiction, low educational attainment, or gang membership and other problems faced by these juveniles. In their opinion, boot camps do not include components that are associated with effective correctional treatment, such as therapeutically trained staff and individualized treatment. Furthermore, military training in the armed forces is followed up by 2 years or more of service that emphasizes the skills learned in basic training. Juvenile boot camps do not continue to give participants such long-term follow-up services and treatment.

The Problem of Net Widening

Boot camps appear to be a deceptively seductive alternative for youths with behavior problems. Thus, there is a good chance that low-risk juveniles may be sent to boot camps when they would otherwise have been given a community alternative such as probation. This essentially widens the net of control over juveniles. Net widening is viewed as a disadvantage because increased numbers of juveniles are incarcerated in facilities when there is little advantage in incarcerating them. There may be little risk that they will commit future delinquencies. Also, these low-risk youths may be negatively affected by the programs. From the perspectives of both costs and the impact on youths’ lives, there may be little advantage in widening the net of control.

Dangers of the Boot Camp Environment

The rigorous physical activity, confrontational interactions, and summary punishments in boot camps carry with them the chance of abuse or injury. The environment is apt to be mentally and physically stressful for the participants. There have been several deaths in the juvenile camps, and law cases are pending regarding responsibility for the deaths. Many people question whether the dangers of the boot camp atmosphere outweigh any benefits of the programs. While physical activity can be healthy, some of the camps have been criticized for requiring activities that are beyond the health status of the participants (e.g., the required long-distance running for overweight juveniles). This is a particular concern if the staff has not had adequate training to be able to determine when juveniles are experiencing extreme mental or physical stress.

Do Juvenile Boot Camps Work?

The effectiveness of correctional programs can be measured in many ways. For example, boot camps may have an impact on the conditions of confinement. From this perspective, research may investigate whether boot camps are safer than other facilities or whether they increase positive changes such as increased educational attainment or decreased antisocial attitudes. Often the major interest of policymakers and the public is whether correctional programs reduce the recidivism or future criminal activities of participants.

There is some research examining the effectiveness of correctional boot camps in reducing recidivism. MacKenzie and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis comparing the recidivism of boot camp participants with the recidivism of comparison groups. A meta-analysis is a statistical analysis that uses studies as the unit of analysis. The meta-analysis of boot camps included 44 different studies of adult and juvenile boot camps. The studies used different measures of recidivism, including rearrests, reconvictions, and reincarcerations. For each study, an effect size was calculated. The effect size indicates whether recidivism was lower for the boot camp participants or the comparison group and how large this difference was. The researchers found that the recidivism rates of the participants and of the control group that did attend a boot camp were almost exactly the same. This was true for both the adult and the juvenile programs. Thus, from this research, it does not appear that juvenile boot camps are effective in reducing the later criminal activities of juvenile delinquents.

Some research has indicated that boot camps have a positive impact on participants’ attitudes. In this research, the participants were found to have become less antisocial and develop better attitudes toward staff and programs. However, these results are not consistent. It may be that the results differ depending on the emphasis of the camp. Boot camps that emphasize therapeutic treatment may have a more positive impact on attitudes than camps that emphasize basic military training, consisting of physical training, drill and ceremony, and hard labor. We don’t have enough research to clearly assess whether the camps have a positive impact on attitudes.

Another way the effectiveness of boot camps can be studied is to examine the cost of the programs. It is costly to build and operate facilities. If the boot camps widen the net by putting juveniles in facilities when they would otherwise have been in the community, there may be a substantial cost to the programs. On the other hand, if the camps reduce the amount of time juveniles spend in facilities, they could reduce costs. Most juvenile programs are relatively small, so the costs of the programs may not have a large impact on the jurisdictions operating them. This may be the reason why there is no research investigating the issue of the cost of juvenile boot camps.

The Future of Juvenile Boot Camps

Boot camps were a popular correctional approach that fit the philosophy of the conservative 1980s and 1990s. The programs appeared tough on crime and therefore answered politicians’ needs to show that they supported tough programs. They answered the public’s desire to punish juveniles instead of coddling them. The media liked them because they made good short news pieces for national television. But will they last? This is a question that many people are asking. There have been deaths of both staff and juveniles in the boot camps; as a result, people are beginning to question whether this is good correctional practice. Critics continue to advocate the elimination of the camps because they do not follow the principles of effective correctional practice. It is impossible to tell at this point whether boot camps will continue to operate. Given the disappointing results of the recidivism analyses, it appears that there is little reason to continue to operate the camps. Unless some additional justification for the camps is discovered, most likely there will be fewer and fewer juvenile boot camps in the future.


  1. Gover, A. R., MaccKenzie, D. L., & Styve, G. J. (1999). The environment and working conditions in juvenile boot camps and traditional facilities. Journal of Criminal Justice, 28(1), 53-68.
  2. Lutz, F., & Murphy, D. (1999). Ultra-masculine prison environments and inmate adjustment: It’s time to move beyond the “boys will be boys” paradigm. Justice Quarterly, 16(4), 709-733.
  3. MacKenzie, D. L. (2006). What works in corrections? Examining the criminal activities of offenders and delinquents. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  4. MacKenzie, D. L., & Armstrong, G. S. (Eds.). (2004). Correctional boot camps: Military basic training or a model for corrections? Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Return to the overview of Sentencing and Incarceration in Forensic Psychology.