Boot Camps Under Fire After Florida Teen's Death

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Martin Lee Anderson, 14, before he died

Martin Lee Anderson, 14, on Jan. 4, the day before he went to the Bay County boot camp program in Panama City, Fla. He died there after being beaten by guards. Courtesy of Anderson family. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Anderson family.

The recent death of a 14-year-old boy in a juvenile-justice boot camp in Florida is forcing lawmakers to rethink the model. Critics are calling for an end to the programs. But state lawmakers say boot camps can be toned down and reformed, even though research shows the programs are ineffective.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Florida lawmakers are rethinking the idea of military-style juvenile justice boot camps after the death of a 14-year-old boy this year. Martin Lee Anderson was beaten by nearly half a dozen guards in a confrontation that was captured on video at a camp.

But while Anderson's parents and civil rights groups have called for the closure of all boot camps in the state, Florida lawmakers believe the programs can be reformed.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Martin Lee Anderson was 14 years old, loved to play chess, and his parents agree, he looked just like his father.

Mr. ROBERT ANDERSON (Father of Martin Lee Anderson): He looked just like me.

Ms. GINA JONES (Mother of Martin Lee Anderson): He looked just like him, like he the one who spit him out instead of me.

CORNISH: Gina Jones and Robert Anderson say their son was arrested after he and some friends stole his grandmother's car while she was at church and totaled it. Anderson was sentenced to spend six months in a juvenile justice facility and ended up in the Bay County Boot Camp program in Panama City, Florida.

Gina Jones remembers one of her visits with a supervisor there.

Ms. JONES: And he was talking, telling Martin, when you in my house, you go by my rules. I'm not going to just sit you outside of the door like you're in a classroom. He said, do you like spitting in your face? Martin said, no sir. He said, in here, are you going to be a lover or a fighter?

When we got in the car, my baby said, mamma, I don't care how many times they spit on my face. I'm going to do everything they ask me to do. I'm going to be good in there.

CORNISH: In the first few weeks of most boot camps, teenagers are introduced to shock incarceration, and ideology that says you do what you're told, when you're told to do it. But during his first night at the camp, Anderson either refused or couldn't continue a running exercise and was beaten by nearly half a dozen guards at the camp.

Mr. THOMAS BLOMBERG (Dean of Criminology, Florida State University): There is science to boot camps, and what the studies show with unbroken frequency is they don't work.

CORNISH: Thomas Blomberg is the Dean of Criminology at Florida State University. He says since the late '90s, nearly half a dozen states, from Arizona to Maryland, have dropped paramilitary-style facilities after federal investigations and wrongful death suits.

Mr. BLOMBERG: They don't reduce recidivism, they don't change attitudes and, in fact, some even argue they have brutalizing effects.

CORNISH: In Florida, most of the camps had nearly 60 percent of their youth-offender graduates arrested again with a year, but state lawmakers say what they're calling for now is nothing short of a total overhaul.

Anthony Schembri, the Secretary of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice, says these programs can be reformed.

Mr. ANTHONY SCHEMBRI (Department of Juvenile Justice, Florida): Their practices are going to change, but still, there will be a military type of stripping kids of their criminality and a lot of these kids need some discipline. We get them when their parents are at their wit's end.

CORNISH: Schembri says the camps will be renamed STAR programs, as in Sheriffs Training And Respect programs. They will have stricter policies regarding the yelling and intimidation tactics of shock incarceration. Lawmakers are basing the new model on the one camp that has seen 80 percent of its graduates actually move on without arrest.

Sheriff Robert Crowders, Martin County Juvenile Training Center:

(Soundbite of boot camp exercise)

CORNISH: The teenage offenders here do their fair share of counting off by number of marching and calisthenics, but Crowder says the primary purpose of the paramilitary approach is to get the kids under control and establish discipline.

Sheriff ROBERT CROWDER (Martin County Juvenile Training Center): Once we've established that, then we change the focus completely and go to the individual and try to have a comprehensive approach toward dealing with their problems.

CORNISH: Crowder's year-long program offers counseling, an active Boy Scout troop and ends in a transition period, where the teens continue to get mentoring and schooling, even when they're no longer living at the detention center. It's an expensive process and despite the renewed attention, this camp is closing because it's under-funded.

Sheriff CROWDER: We get a lot of lip service, but the true policy of a government is stated in its budget document, and looking at the budget of the State of Florida, kids don't rate that high.

CORNISH: House lawmakers are pushing for the ten and a half million boot-camp dollars to be redirected to newer, less aggressive programs, and the U.S. Attorney's office in Florida and federal civil rights investigators are investigating the death of Martin Lee Anderson.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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