WASHINGTON -- Crime in the Navy doesn't pay, but now, according to senior commanders, neither does the punishment.
The Navy, under pressure to find new budget cuts, will begin shutting down its boot camps for delinquent sailors this month because commanders say they can no longer justify the $4.3 million annual expense of running and staffing the facilities.
The leaner, meaner post-Cold War Navy would rather expel problem sailors than rehabilitate them, a knowledgeable Navy official explained yesterday.
Four other disciplinary camps -- known as correctional custody units (CCUs) -- will be evaluated and considered for closing later, the official said.
"The initiative is really coming from the field, because base commanders are being pushed to reduce billets [positions]," he said. "The number of disciplinary cases has been way down and we've really changed the rules so, by and large, people don't get a second chance anyway."
Dismantling the disciplinary camps would end a 31-year-old program that offered a less severe alternative to court-martial or imprisonment in a Navy brig.
Sailors sent to the camps, usually after a proceeding called a captain's mast, get intensive Navy instruction and physical fitness training -- much like recruit training camp -- and work assignments on the naval base, but not "hard labor," officials said.
In 1989, when it had difficulty attracting top-quality recruits, meeting recruiting quotas and retaining first-term enlistees, the Navy declared it would discharge fewer troublemakers and find ways to motivate "marginal" sailors with "remedial programs such as CCUs if necessary." This included sailors who were disrespectful, failed to follow orders or ran off for several days.
As the Navy shrinks in size and budget, there is less need to retain them, the official said.
To keep only the best sailors in the fleet, those involved with drugs, weapons or sexual harassment make a quick exit and, since last year, sailors who re-enlist for a second term must be approved by both their commanding officers and Navy headquarters.
The Navy spends about $4.3 million a year to run all 11 boot camps, with a combined staff of 51 enlisted officers.
But the number of sailors sent to camp for a rigorous "reindoctrination" in Navy rules and discipline has fallen sharply from 2,704 in 1991 to 925 in 1992, the Navy Bureau of Personnel reported.
Since January, the average daily population has been 57 sailors, for a projected annual figure of 614, the bureau said.
Even rates of desertion and "unauthorized absences" have dropped sharply, with absences falling from 73 per 1,000 sailors in 1975 to 13.9 per 1,000 last year.
"It's a matter of diminishing returns," the Navy official said.
Slated to close by March 31 will be all four camps in the Pacific Fleet, located in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; San Diego; Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay; and Yokosuka, Japan.
Three Atlantic Fleet camps will close in July -- Charleston, S.C.; New London, Conn.; and Philadelphia -- but the fleet's other camps in Jacksonville, Fla., and Hampton Roads, Va., the Navy's largest, will stay open while their future remains under consideration.
Two camps at technical or aviation training centers in Memphis, Tenn., and Pensacola, Fla., will also remain open during the evaluation.