Reno Unveils ‘Swamp Camp’ in Florida : Crime: Detention center will put young offenders to work on environmental cleanup projects. They will also receive counseling and vocational training.


Atty. Gen. Janet Reno traveled Friday to one of the most remote spots in Florida--a vast, watery prairie filled with alligators and poisonous snakes--to announce the Clinton Administration’s latest response to violent juvenile crime: swamp camp.

The camp, modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, is the first of what White House officials envision as “last chance” detention centers on federal lands where felons under the age of 18 will work on environmental cleanup projects while providing low-cost labor to the National Park Service.

Under a Senate resolution passed last November, the Youth Environmental Service camps will be administered jointly by the Justice Department and the Interior Department. Other YES camps are being planned in Utah and at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., while the Department of Agriculture is looking at setting up similar camps in national forests in Oregon, North Carolina and Indiana.


The Florida camp, based at the site of an abandoned sawmill, will house up to 20 young offenders convicted of crimes such as murder, rape or violent robberies. Under the direction of counselors rather than guards, they will spend up to a year eradicating exotic weed trees, clearing trails and building boardwalks. They also will receive counseling and vocational training.

“We have messed up the children of America too long over the past 30 to 40 years,” Reno said. “We have been indifferent to their problems. We’ve also messed up the environment.” The camps, she said, offer a chance to help both.

Reno was joined at the dedication ceremony by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who as the state’s governor 12 years ago helped design a prototype of the Big Cypress camp.

That camp--located near the northern edge of the Everglades in Venus, Fla.--is operated by a private company, Associated Marine Institutes of Tampa, which has been contracted to run the Big Cypress camp. The cost will be paid by the state.

Graham said he hopes to see the YES camps spread across the United States as a way “to get dangerous juveniles off the streets and into programs that work.” He said serious offenders could be placed in remote settings such as Big Cypress, which is about 70 miles west of Miami, while nonviolent delinquents could work on government lands closer to home.

Attending the dedication ceremony were several youths now at the Venus camp, as well as a recent graduate who told Reno that the experience changed his life.


“I learned how to discipline myself, I learned about the work ethic and how to have respect,” said Demetrice Lee, 18, convicted of murder for his role in a 1992 St. Petersburg pawn shop robbery in which his accomplice was killed. “This camp will work for those who want to help themselves and turn their lives around,” he said.

Lee, who has completed one year of community college and works full time in a fast-food restaurant, was lauded by Reno as “representing the future of America.”

“Let us reach out to children like Demetrice Lee and give them the love and structure they need,” she said.

Reno said that although she supports some version of the so-called three-strikes-and-you’re-out measure, in which repeat felons could be jailed for life, many young offenders could be better served by such camps.

The dedication ceremony, held in a National Park Service garage rather than at the campsite because of heavy rain, was a homecoming for Reno, a Miami native and former Dade County state attorney who has a passion for hiking through both the Everglades and the adjacent Big Cypress preserve.

On the drive west from Miami, Reno said she delighted in identifying for Babbitt the various herons, egrets and other wading birds that are abundant along the highway.