Spurred by a steep decline in juvenile arrests and pressures on the state budget, the state’s only military-style “boot camp” for juveniles graduated its last class in May.
by Joseph O’Sullivan
Seattle Times Olympia Bureau
July 25, 2015
Beneath the razor wire, next to the fence door where kids entered Camp Outlook read a sign: “More than a Boot Camp.”
It was a point of pride for the camp’s last director, Harold Wright.
In the tiny town of Connell in Franklin County, teenagers convicted of crimes would get a dose old-school discipline: situps, push-ups, running. But they also got behavioral therapy, job training and help finishing their education.
“Sound body and sound mind,” Wright described it, adding: “We tried to rid them of those past behaviors.”
Even as military-style camps for juveniles elsewhere acquired a darker reputation — some were shut down after the deaths of boys and girls — Washington state’s camp remained. A 2004 state report even showed that, unlike camps in other states, Camp Outlook helped reduce some recidivism rates and save money.
But spurred by a decline in juvenile arrests and pressures on the state budget, the camp closed this spring. Its last class — six people — graduated in May, according to Pioneer Human Services, which operated the camp under a state contract.
Closing Camp Outlook will save the state $1.7 million over the 2015-17 budget cycle. Although only a drop in the new $38.2 billion state operating budget, lawmakers sought savings where they could find it to put more money toward education, mental-health programs and pay increases for teachers and state workers.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and chief budget writer for Democrats, cited the “pretty stunning” decline in youth crime as a reason to shut down the camp.
The numbers bear that out. In 2004, there were about 39,000 juvenile arrests in the state, according to data collected by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. By 2014, that number stood at about 13,000 — a roughly 67 percent decline over the decade.
The steep drop mirrors both an international trend in developed countries and a national one, according to Jeffrey Butts of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
There’s no single reason for the decline, and in an email, Butts, director of the college’s Research and Evaluation Center, lists several, such as economic factors, better home security and theft protection on consumer products, and more ways for kids to entertain themselves rather than resorting to crime.
And in Washington state, probation, therapy and chemical-dependence treatment programs diverted those who otherwise may have found their way to Camp Outlook, according to David Griffith of the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
When it opened in 1997, the camp had nearly 50 beds, according to Griffith, a policy adviser for the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration at DSHS. By the time it closed, an average of just 11 beds were being used.
In other words, the evolution of crime and criminal-justice rehabilitation passed by Camp Outlook.
“We’re going to try and spend our money,” said Hunter, “in more effective ways.”
Most of teenagers came to the camp after being sentenced to state-run facilities.
As camp director, Wright would travel to such facilities — the Echo Glen Children’s Center in Snoqualmie, Green Hill School in Chehalis, a youth camp in Naselle, Pacific County — to pitch Camp Outlook to kids as an alternative to their sentence.
The criteria was specific: To be eligible, teenagers had to be between 14 and 19 and have a minimum sentence for crimes — but not violent ones or sex offenses — for less than a total of 65 weeks.
“They chose to go out of the institutions and come do something different,” said Wright.
Those who signed up found themselves in Connell, a small town about a 45-minute drive north of the Tri-Cities, “in the desert,” as Wright described it.
There, behind the chain-link fences, two large tents housing dormitories and classrooms welcomed the teenagers, along with drill instructors, support staff, teachers and a chef.
The days began at 5 a.m., according to Wright, and included physical training like push-ups, situps and running. There were therapy programs and classes to help students earn a diploma or GED and get job skills. The students would also present and retire the colors — raising and lowering the camp flag.
After completing the 120-day program, some teens were released under supervision while others were sent to community facilities overseen by the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration.
Wright points to a 2004 state report showing some benefits brought by Camp Outlook. Conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), the report found a lower rate of relapse into criminal behavior — for violent felonies — among those who went Camp Outlook, compared with those of similar backgrounds who had not.
The report also found that because successful camp graduates were released under supervision for the remainder of their sentences, the camp cost less than a traditional institution — saving the state some money.
But those findings present a rare bright spot in the world of military-style training camps. For comparison, the WSIPP report looked at 10 juvenile boot camps around the nation and didn’t find lower recidivism rates.
“In fact, the average effect for the 10 reviewed studies was an increase in the chance that participants will recidivate by about 10 percent,” according to the report.
A study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice to look at juvenile-justice initiatives in 1994-96 examined a trio of camps, and none “appeared to have reduced recidivism.”A 2000 study by The National Council on Crime and Delinquency expanded on that finding.
“Although many of the programs are well administered and popular with public officials, they are not demonstrating a significant impact on recidivism, prison or jail crowding, or costs — the three core goals of boot camps,” according to that report.
Elsewhere, documented accounts of abuse — and fatalities — sprung up at juvenile camps. The death of a 14-year-old boy in a Florida facility led to that state shutting down its military-style camps. The death of a teenage girl led to the closure of South Dakota’s camps, according to a report by Mother Jones.
“Policymakers like them because they look like something that works,” said Butts, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But, “there’s nothing about the military discipline that has a rehabilitative or deterrent effect.”
The bill that passed this year allowing Camp Outlook’s closure changed only one word in state law — that the state “may” have a camp, rather than “shall” have one.
Because of that, Griffith said some version of Camp Outlook could eventually reappear. But, “If we were to continue with that approach,” he said, “we would focus more on the job training.”