It's that time in the election cycle when National plays the law and order card.

But even Prime Minister Bill English, who prides himself on delivering policy that is evidence-based, can't bring himself to claim that sending 50 young criminals off to a military boot camp for a year at a cost of $150,000 a head, will turn them into model citizens.

Obviously aware of the library of evidence from around the world, including a report from his own chief scientific adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, that boot camps don't work, English fell back on the rather desperate "we're willing to try".

At $150,000 a guinea pig, plus another $150,000 of matching community back-up for each, it's a hugely costly gamble, both in cash and the well-being of these kids.


Supporters call it tough love. But as Herald reporter Matt Nippert reminded us recently, there was no love revealed in his 2015 expose of the privately run "Devil's Island" boot camp on Great Barrier Island where the Government banished our most troubled youth from the late 1980s until 2004.

This so-called "youth justice facility" was abandoned after government investigators finally admitted, after years of dismissing kids' complaints, that it was a hell on earth. Kids were made "to dig their own graves" and subjected to mock executions. One was hunted by a gun-toting neighbour who shot at him.

On TVNZ's Sunday the other night, one of the ministers responsible, Ruth Dyson, said that far from rehabilitating the victims, this state-funded "violence and abuse" had "turned them into resentful and angry young people who would never trust the system again".

A third of boys said they'd been seriously assaulted by staff. One said he'd been raped.

This comes at a time when English is refusing to hold an independent inquiry into the myriad claims of abuse suffered by young people in a number of other state-funded residential facilities from the early 1940s up to 1992.

More than $17 million has been quietly paid out in compensation, but he refuses the Human Rights Commissioner's call for a formal inquiry. Before Great Barrier, the politicians had experimented with "Corrective Training".

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

For 21 years from 1982, the worst of our problem kids were dispatched to CT camps for three months of early wake-ups, physical exercise and hard work.

An early report revealed that 71 per cent of the first year "graduates" committed further offences.

By 1997, the reconviction rate after five years was 92 per cent, or three times the reoffending rate of the general prison population.

Principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft later quipped that the traditional youth offender boot camp was "arguably the least successful sentence in the Western World".

He said "it made them healthier, fitter, faster, but they were still burglars, just harder to catch".

In 2009, English's predecessor, John Key, had another go, introducing Military-Style Activity Camp (MAC) programmes to "reinforce self-discipline, personal responsibility and community values" in the worst 40 youth offenders each year.

Of MAC's first 31 "graduates", 61 per cent reoffended within six months, 10 of them committing a total of 126 offences in that time. The reoffending rate proved to be similar to that of other young criminals not involved with MAC.

Two defence personnel were disciplined over the period for physical and verbal attacks on trainees. A report last year to the Ministry of Social Justice showed a similar pattern overseas. "International research regarding the effectiveness of military-style interventions is mixed," concluded a study team headed by a clinical psychologist, Associate Professor Ian Lambie.

They reported that two surveys of the international literature showed "no overall difference in recidivism rates between participants in boot camp interventions" and those placed in community supervision or in a youth jail. Another survey showed that boot camps "were significantly associated with increased recidivism".

The Lambie report concluded that "the population of young people in youth justice secure residential care is a vulnerable group that we all have collective responsibility for".

Their care, it says, should be based on "evidence-based practice".

It's a sentiment the Prime Minister is fond of repeating, except it seems, when it's election time and he has to pander to the "Sensible Sentencing" extremists.