No more boot camp at Cook County Jail?

January 24, 2014

WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer
File: A holding cell in the Cook County Jail.

Two Illinois state legislators are seeking to eliminate the boot camp at the Cook County Jail, but research has shown it’s an effective program.  That research, however, is 7 years old.

The push by Illinois Reps. Dennis Reboletti and Mike Zalewski to eliminate the boot camp comes in the wake of a Chicago Sun-Times series showing judges have been improperly sentencing violent offenders to the boot camp.

Boot camp is a four-month program for offenders, based on military-style exercise and training followed by eight months of supervision with services like job training.

“Having people statutorily ineligible was a problem,” said Cara Smith, executive director of the Cook County Department of Corrections, “but we’ve addressed that.”

Smith said the sheriff asked judges to take another look at people who had been sentenced to the boot camp, and people who should not have been there were weeded out.

“Could any program be improved and modified?  Yes,” said David Olson, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago. “Are programs like boot camps completely useless?  No.”

Olson conducted a study of the boot camp in 2007 that found 28 percent of the boot camp graduates were rearrested within 8 months. That compares to a 49 percent rearrest rate for similar offenders who went to prison. Olson wonders, if you cut the boot camp and send those people to prison, “Will the outcomes be better, or will we just have a better feeling in our gut that we’re imposing a more punitive sanction?”

The boot camp has also been criticized because one graduate, Bryon Champ, was involved in a shooting in a Chicago park last year in which 13 people were injured.  Olson says yes, people have gone through the boot camp and then re-offended, but he says when people come out of prison and re-offend we don’t talk about shutting down prisons.

John Maki with the prison watchdog John Howard Association points out that Olson’s study is now 7 years old.  Maki says if the boot camp is shown to still be effective it should be saved, but given the recent news stories there are real questions about how it’s being run.

Cara Smith with the jail says they’ve done a lot to reform the program.  “We’re certainly not at the point where we think this program has to go,” said Smith.

Rep. Zalewski said “the recent anecdotal data is it’s (the boot camp) not working.”  However Zalewski said the proposal to eliminate it will at least force a debate about its effectiveness.