updated 10/15/2004 4:33:07 PM ET 2004-10-15T20:33:07

Boot camps and other “get tough” program for adolescents do not prevent criminal behavior, as intended, and may make the problem even worse, an expert panel concluded Friday.

Furthermore, laws transferring juveniles into the adult court system lead these teens to commit more violence and do not deter others from committing crime, the panel said.

More promising, it said, are programs that offer intensive counseling for families and young people at risk.

The 13-member panel of experts, convened by the National Institutes of Health, reviewed the available scientific evidence to look for consensus on causes of youth violence and ways to prevent it.

“‘Scare tactics’ don’t work,” the panel concluded in its report, which was released Friday. “Programs that seek to prevent violence through fear and tough treatment do not work.”

Youth violence has declined from its peak a decade ago, but violent crime rates are still high, the panel said.

Multiple causes complicate response
Violence can be traced to a variety of troublesome conditions. Among possible causes: inconsistent or harsh parenting, poor peer relations, gang involvement, lack of connection to school and living in a violent neighborhood.

The trouble with boot camps, group detention centers and other “get tough” programs is that they bring together young people who are inclined toward violence and teach each other how to commit more crime, the panel said: “The more sophisticated [teens] instruct the more naive in precisely the behaviors that the intervener wishes to prevent.”

It also rejected programs that “consist largely of adults lecturing,” such as DARE.

One barrier to implementing effective programs, the report said, is resistance from people operating ineffective programs who depend of them for their jobs.

“All the evaluations have shown they don’t work,” said the panel’s chairman, Dr. Robert L. Johnson of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. “Many communities are wasting a great deal of money on those types of programs.”

The panel looked for programs that have been tested using rigorous research methods and concluded that “the good news is that there are a number of intervention programs that have been shown” to be effective.

The report cited two: a therapy program where youths and their families attend 12 one-hour sessions over three months, and a community-based clinical treatment program that targeted violent and chronic offenders at risk of being removed from their families. This second program provided about 60 hours of counseling over about four months, with therapists available at all hours.

One key, Johnson said, was letting counselors observe families together and offer suggestions for better parenting.

Both programs reduced arrest rates and out-of-home placements, with positive effects four years after treatment ended.

The report identified six other programs that seemed to work but that had not been studied as closely, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, a nurse-family partnership program and Project Towards No Drug Abuse.

Successful programs share a variety of characteristics, the panel said. Among them: Treatments last a year or longer; intensive clinical work with those at risk is included; they take place outside schools and other institutional settings.

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