ATLANTA -- Georgia judges continue to sentence offenders to the state's juvenile boot camps even though the federal government says the programs are ineffective punishment.
More than 16,000 juveniles have been sentenced to the 90-day program since it began four years ago, including 5,600 in fiscal 1997 -- almost double the total in 1995.
Juvenile Judge Lane Bearden said the boot camps are useful to judges who don't want to send problem youths to juvenile prison and don't want to return them to their homes either.
``I know there have been problems, but I also have had kids come to me and say, `Judge, it's the best thing to happen to me,''' he said.
``But there are probably some kids that I send to a boot camp, if I had a community program available I'd send them there instead,'' Judge Bearden said, citing such possible programs as wilderness training and after-school programs.
The U.S. Justice Department criticized the program in February, after a yearlong investigation during which it inspected three boot camps.
Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bill Lann Lee said federal investigators found that:
-- Guards routinely used extreme forms of corporal punishment under the guise of providing on-the-spot correction, resulting in serious injuries to youths.
-- Mentally ill and disabled youths received inadequate care and services.
-- Inadequate screening allowed youths with injured legs and feet or with serious medical conditions to be admitted into the program.
-- Younger children who had difficulty understanding boot camp commands were being psychologically and physically harmed.
``It is our experts' opinion -- and the opinion of many of the boot camp staff and mental health professionals with whom we spoke -- that the paramilitary boot camp model is not only ineffective, but harmful to such youths,'' Mr. Lee said.
State Department of Juvenile Justice officials strongly dispute the allegations.
``We have done the very best we can to provide bed space and a good environment to the kids,'' said Yolande Collins, deputy director of the Juvenile Justice campus operations.