Camp Kiddy

A BIG-TICKET crime bill at the Minnesota Legislature has officials at the Department of Corrections waxing optimistic, and some community groups feeling nervous, about the future of juvenile justice in Minnesota. Announced last October by Gov. Arne Carlson, the bill includes a $4 million proposal to use Camp Ripley, the 53,000-acre military training base near Brainerd, to host a variety of programs for young offenders--including a state-sponsored boot camp.

The legislation proposes three programs for kids as young as 11: a weekend "leadership" camp for first-time offenders, a three-week "challenge course" for second- and third-time offenders, and a three-month boot camp for the "serious chronic juvenile offender." The boot camp is considered the last stop before tougher facilities like Red Wing or Sauk Center.

Although it's unclear what each program will entail, DOC officials now working on the weekend camp say they envision a place where children can learn work skills and "responsibility." "Word is out that we're going to be doing all these shame-based boot camps, [and] that's certainly not what we have on the table," says Janet Entzel, an assistant commissioner at the DOC. Still, Entzel admits she is unsure what type of program legislators will ultimately want at Ripley, and some officials have been looking at boot camps around the country to get ideas for tougher programs at the facility.

Carlson himself has visited several privately run juvenile programs around the country in the past couple of years. According to Bryan Dietz, Carlson's press secretary, the governor thought it "might make sense to send these kids up to Camp Ripley to teach them a little hard love, and send the message that if they commit these petty offenses, they will be punished." Dietz says that camps could include hard labor, such as road maintenance and brush clearing in a "military-style" environment.

One program visited by Carlson is VisionQuest, a national treatment program for delinquent youths. Officials say that VisionQuest could be hired to run a camp at Ripley with government funding, or that the DOC could use the VQ model to create its own program. VisionQuest typically puts juveniles into demanding physical situations in a wilderness setting; in the process, they claim to teach leadership and personal responsibility.

VisionQuest has a long and controversial history. In the early 1980s, the Tucson-based company faced charges of child abuse when a juvenile collapsed and died during training exercises at a New Mexico wilderness camp. Soon after, government authorities began investigations of VisionQuest in several states. Although the company was cleared of any wrongdoing, its problems continued. According to the Arizona Daily Star, in 1993-94 staff members were investigated nine times on allegations of abuse that included injuring and humiliating campers. The following year nearly 100 juvenile offenders fled VQ programs; some later claimed they were fleeing an abusive staff and a harsh camp environment. Critics have blamed staff incompetence and high turnover rates for the organization's chronic troubles.

"We're not wedded to VisionQuest," says Ann Jaede, director of juvenile strategic planning at the DOC. "This is a model we've looked at [and] one of the reasons we're interested in VisionQuest is because of the fairly intensive aftercare that they provide."

Still, some community groups bristle at the idea of out-of-state corporations running programs for local youths. "The left hand of VisionQuest doesn't know what the right hand is doing," says Wallace Jackman, publisher of the Minneapolis Spokesman and a member of the Buffalo Soldiers of Minnesota, a black Twin Cities organization that is interested in administering the program itself. "VisionQuest has become an empire," says Jackman. "There's no African-American top-level leadership. You can't lock up 100 percent of African-Americans and have no representation on the top end. It doesn't make any sense."

Officials, for their part, insist the Ripley programs (at least the weekend camp) will be developed in consultation with community groups. Meanwhile, the bill's author, Rep. Rich Stanek (R-Maple Grove), expects that it will pass several committees this month before going to the House for a final vote. Although a Judiciary Committee vote originally scheduled for Monday has been postponed, Stanek remains confident that the bill will become law. "This is a good bill," he says. "Where else are we going to send these kids? What else are we going to do with them?"

The boot-camp approach is "sort
of like DARE," says Barry Feld, a University of Minnesota law professor who's studied juvenile justice issues. "Most of [the research] shows that it doesn't make any difference. But you know, it's one of those feel-good things: 'If we saved one kid it's worth it.' But of course, that one kid may have saved himself."

 
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