Putting the boot into boot camps

21:03, Aug 31 2009
Pat Booth

They arrived within hours of each other from different sources. One was a report on the Fairfax Stuff website, the other a typical unsolicited, unsourced email. There was a significant and unstated link.

First the news item. It was headed, very accurately, "Judge puts boot into boot camps".

It quoted principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft on the earlier version of "corrective training camps" which ran until 2002.

His verdict: "The traditional boot camp for young offenders was arguably the least successful sentence in the Western world ... 92 percent of those involved were back into crime within a year ... a spectacular, tragic flawed failure ... it made them healthier, fitter, faster, but they were still burglars, just harder to catch ..."

The second item to hit my screen was said by an anonymous donor to have been published as an obituary in The Times (London, not North Shore). Now read on:

"Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape.


"He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as knowing when to come in out of the rain, why the early bird gets the worm, life isn’t always fair and maybe it was my fault.

"Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies – don’t spend more than you can earn – and reliable strategies – adults, not children, are in charge.

"His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place.

"Reports of a six-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

"Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children.

"He declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an aspirin to a student but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

"Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims.

"Common Sense took a beating when you couldn’t defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

"Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents Truth and Trust, by his wife Discretion, by his daughter Responsibility, and by his son Reason.

"He is survived by his four stepbrothers – I Know My Rights, I Want It Now, Someone Else Is To Blame, I’m A Victim.

"Not many attended his funeral because so few realised he was gone."

These days, when so much is threatening, when the future seems suspect, when, for example, those boot camps are seen by some as an answer to hoons, when ‘three strikes and you’re in’ is hailed as a heavy weapon to beat the chronically violent, maybe a rebirth of Common Sense could be added into the mix.

What would he have thought of the judge’s boot camp verdict. Or the response of Social Development Minister Paula Bennett?

She agreed the old boot camps lacked the necessary follow-up support to work.

But the government’s proposed military-style activity camps would be followed by six to nine months of intensive mentoring, she said.

"At no point are we going to throw them in there, get them fit, beat them around a little bit and send them back on the street, that’s just not it at all," she said.

The three-month camps for the country’s 40 most dangerous young offenders would use army-type facilities and training methods to teach self-discipline, personal responsibility and community values as well as literacy, numeracy and drug and alcohol support.

Having looked at all this, the late Mr Common Sense could advise on policy which sounded so impressive in the campaign.

At that time, with political power as the prize, promises were made which hypnotised past and potential victims into nodding agreement.

Polling pledges made the "lock ’em up and throw away the key" exponents even more enthusiastic – and even stirred the capital punishment advocates.

I’d like to have talked through the boot camp project with him.

Would he have agreed or felt we were simply adding to the unjustified mana of those who are already prepared to beat, bash and rob, shoot sleeping children in drive-by rampages simply to earn a gang patch or settle a stupid feud?

Mr C Sense might have given us some guidance, for instance, on how many in that Wanganui killer car gave even a second’s thought to possible outcomes for them before revving up and pulling the trigger?

Or whether an earlier boot camp experience would have changed the behaviour of Nia Glassie’s killers.

He might have had some notion whether doubling sentences or the risk of gang novices ending up in boot camp would make any difference.

Would he have worried at the statistic Judge Becroft quoted that nine out of 10 boot campers under the previous scheme were back into crime within a year?

I wonder whether dear old Common Sense could have helped us in some other important matters.

What would Mr C Sense have made of a belief I have that many criminals go about their ugly business without a single thought of being found out?

Would he have pondered whether many killings come from flashes of uncontrolled anger without any weighing up of what the risks of detection are and how many years behind bars might follow?

Or are they the product of the drugs we understandably worry so much about?

What would he have made of killers who do time, then kill again?

Would he have worried at plans for delinquents to go to school wearing their electronic tracking bracelets, whether the gear would be seen by their mates as a symbol of wrongdoing or cool in the extreme.

Are you sure? I’m not. And we need to be.

That’s why I hope the parliamentary planners, the select committee members and the MPs who finally head for the "Yes" or "No" lobbies to vote might find a way to act on after-death advice from Mr C Sense to assure them that what they decide is the right course.

You will see from his obituary that he was neither a punishment extremist, nor a mindless do-gooder, that he spoke for victims and those without a voice, that he wasn’t swayed by emotion or thoughtless anger.

He set an example for all of us to follow – never more than now.

- To contact Pat Booth email offpat@snl.co.nz or write care of this newspaper. All replies are open for publication unless marked Not For Publication.