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'Get tough' programs for youths criticized

Tactics may worsen problem, panel says

WASHINGTON -- Boot camps and other ''get tough" programs for adolescents do not prevent criminal behavior, as intended, and may make the problem even worse, an expert panel concluded yesterday.

Further, laws transferring juveniles into the adult court system lead these teens to commit more violence, while there is no proof they deter others from committing crime, the panel said.

Programs that offer intensive counseling for families and young people at risk, however, are more promising, it said.

The 13-member panel of experts, convened by the National Institutes of Health, reviewed 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. ''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 experts said.

Violence can be traced to a variety of troublesome conditions, including 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, detention centers, and other ''get tough" programs is they bring together young people inclined toward violence and who teach each other how to commit more crime, the panel said.

The group also rejected programs that ''consist largely of adults lecturing," such as DARE.

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

''All the evaluations have shown they don't work," said the panel's chair, Dr. Robert L. Johnson of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. ''Many communities are wasting a great deal of money."

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" 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 four months with therapists available at all hours.

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

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