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Colorado Closes Boot Camp Program

by David M. Reutter

Following the graduation of 23 prisoners from its boot camp program on May 27, 2010, Colorado suspended the program. A combination of high costs and low returns led to the boot camp being scuttled.

Military-style boot camps for low-risk juvenile offenders were all the rage during the prison build-up caused by “get-tough-on-crime” laws, which have been the linchpin of criminal justice policy in the U.S. for the past three decades.

It was expected that rigid discipline would cause juveniles to change their attitudes and thus their behavior. However, the results have sorely disappointed. Colorado has released 155 prisoners from its boot camp program in Buena Vista since 2007, and 51 percent have since returned to prison.

“The lowest-risk offenders go into the camp,” said Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti. “You would have expected a huge difference in recidivism.”

Yet the only difference in the recidivism rate was that it was just two percentage points lower than for so-called high-risk offenders. Plus the costs of the program were higher; in the past year alone, the cost per boot camp participant soared from $78 to $108 per day.
A decrease in minimum-security prisoners contributed to the higher costs. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of boot camp participants dropped 40 percent to 322 from 540.
Since opening in 1991, Colorado’s boot camp has offered a GED program and substance abuse treatment. About 90 percent of the prisoners who went through the boot camp had drug or alcohol abuse problems. The short-term program may not have been long enough to result in permanent change, and ongoing treatment may have been better for the boot camp participants, said Sanguinetti.

Colorado’s boot camp program also had a high drop-out rate. The program has enrolled 7,742 prisoners since its inception; of those, one third, or 2,570 participants, dropped out. Only 957 completed their GEDs in the program. Of the 98 drop-outs released in 2007, 61% reoffended.

Critics have questioned the effect boot camps have on juvenile offenders. A June 2003 U.S. Department of Justice study determined that differences in the recidivism rates between prisoners in boot camps and those in the general prison population were small or negligible.

Facing a budget crunch, the CDOC decided to scrap its boot camp program and shift those funds to higher-security prisons. Of course, placing juveniles in those settings has proven to have negative results, too.

Pending an improved budget situation, the state’s boot camp may return. “We are suspending the program, but we are not doing anything to the facility in case it is possible to start it again in the future,” Sanguinetti noted.

Sources: Denver Post,

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