Boot camps are a relic and reveal a bankruptcy of ideas

National’s recent announcement, that they would send serious youth offenders to an army-run boot camp, has a whiff of antiquity. Like mothballs in a secondhand store. It also strikes me as both politically shrewd and ideologically regressive.

I say shrewd because this is clearly a strategy to mine votes from NZ First by repositioning themselves once again as the rightful ‘tough-on-crime’ party. A dog whistle to the substantial portion of the country for whom this puffed-up rhetoric resonates. 

It’s an old-school line of thinking. Youth who are in trouble with the law are simply lacking in discipline and need a firm ‘wake-up call’; a visit with the brutal reality of authority.  

Whatever National’s primary motivation is for pushing this, it is clear Bill English is not drawing from a well of compelling evidence – his unenthusiastic defense of the policy during an interview with Jack Tame seemed to expose the flakiness of the scheme.

Canterbury University criminologist Jarrod Gilbert had this to say: “Overwhelmingly the evidence suggests it won’t work. I don’t think you’d find a bona fide sociologist, criminologist, researcher in the country who will say there is evidence that these types of initiatives are successful… In fact, the evidence shows that it creates more problems and recidivism actually increases. Now we don’t exactly know why that occurs – the shorthand is that we create faster, fitter criminals – but in truth we don’t know. But we do know that they don’t work.”

And in 2011, the government’s own science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, echoed this very sentiment: there is simply no evidence that the approach works. What it does achieve is a brief emotional pay-off for those who put stock in the torpid ‘treat ‘em mean’ brand of thinking.

None of this is easy, of course. Any reasonable attempt to solve the issue is likely to be extremely complex and far too nuanced to be pigeonholed into a one-size-fits-all approach. My critique, therefore, is centred on what I perceive to be a flagrant unwillingness from the government to sensibly engage with the complexities of youth offending and the transformative potential of a restorative justice approach.

For some, the boot camps policy reads as ‘common sense’. Yet I fail to see what is common sense about herding deeply troubled young people into a hyper-masculine, military-styled environment where the root causes of their offending are unlikely to be sufficiently addressed.

These kids – even the most severe of offenders – need an approach which is merciful, culturally-responsive, rigorous and, most importantly, holistic. Assertive at times, too, but never autocratic. In fact, hierarchical intimidation is utterly counter-intuitive when you consider the wider goal at stake: rebuilding bridges between the young person and society, with all its onion-like layers of authority.

It is important, too, to remember that those who commit serious crimes are often victims themselves. The provision of robust professional support – trauma therapy, drug and alcohol counselling, career guidance – is integral, as any approach that fails to address the emotional and psychological aspects of offending is doomed to be unsustainable. There must be an attempt to understand why they have made the decision to break the law in such an egregious manner. Is economic scarcity a factor? Are they unconsciously crying out for help as a result of years of internalised anger and disassociation? Do they derive a sense of familial belonging through the performance of this behaviour? 

Rather than being impersonally barked at by a drill instructor, they need to be told they are cared about – often – and that redemption is available to them. They need to have strong boundaries and high expectations for their success placed on them. They need to be reassured when there are inevitable setbacks (as is the reality of rehabilitation and human nature) that a positive outcome is still salvageable, and that they will never, ever be abandoned by their support networks. They need to be equipped with essential life skills, such as conflict management and financial literacy, and be supported to understand the negative ramifications of their behaviour on their whanau and the wider community. They need strong role models to imbue them with hope – people who have fallen to the depths of delinquency and then found success in wrestling back control of their lives, hoisted up with the support of compassionate grassroots organisations.

What I know from my experience as a teacher in a public school is the following: authoritarianism is the quickest way to destroy relationships, weaken self-esteem, and entrench resentment for the establishment. These kids do need a radical long-term intervention but it should be one built on a philosophy of high ethics, whanaungatanga and empowerment.

Boot camps might serve a political purpose, but a panacea they are not. No thanks, National.


For more information, here is an interesting study on the effectiveness of restorative justice: 

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