Miami-Dade youth boot camp faces closure

The Miami-Dade County boot camp is one of the nation's most successful at turning around young criminals. Less than 7 percent of its graduates are re-arrested within a year, according to 2010 statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. The national average is 55 percent.

"It really helps young kids with few or no prior criminal records who are charged with their first felony," says Bertila Soto, the associate administrative judge for Miami-Dade Criminal Court. "This boot camp is vital. It is the only youth rehabilitation program of its kind in Miami-Dade."

Now, unfortunately, Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants to cut it. "While I understand the value of the boot camp program," he says, "the fact is that we are facing a $409 million budget gap."

That's ironic, because for the past five years or so, Gimenez has championed the program. When former Mayor Carlos Alvarez tried to scrap it, Gimenez helped save it. "I have been forced to make some very difficult decisions," he says. "This is certainly one of them."

Opened in 1995, the $4.7 million-a-year boot camp — which is run by the Corrections and Rehabilitation Department — has been home to more than 2,500 criminals ages 15 to 24. They sleep in barracks, march in formation, and live a military-like existence. The 76-bed facility in West Dade employs 21 people. After the youngsters leave the camp, they are carefully monitored. Graduates have gone on to finish law school, among other achievements.

A boot camp instructor, who didn't want to give his name, recalls that prosecutors and judges have rushed to defend the camp in the past. He also questions Gimenez's about-face. "Now he is the mayor, so it's different," the instructor notes. "He ran on a platform of lowering the tax rate and making cuts."

So while Gimenez can find money in the budget to pay his deputy mayors $200,000 plus annual salaries, he can't be bothered with rehabilitating kids. "It's sad to know that because of the economy and budget woes, we lose sight of what is important," Soto says.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.