HOPE for the criminal justice system

Drawn from Mark Kleiman’s new book:

So Alm devised a new plan. He asked the probation officers to select a group of seemingly incorrigible scofflaws, probationers just one slipup shy of a revocation hearing. Every time one of them missed or flunked a drug test (or broke any other probation rule) he would land in court—and in jail—right away. Alm enlisted the help of prosecutors and public defenders to ensure that a hearing could be held within forty-eight hours of a violation. He corralled the federal fugitive task force to chase down anyone who refused to come into court. To cut down on paperwork, he eliminated the long report, documenting a long history of misconduct, that had previously been required from a probation officer before a revocation hearing. In its place, he substituted a two-page fill-in-the-blanks form, which dealt with only a single missed or dirty test or other violation.

Then, instead of “revoking” probation and condemning the offender to years in prison, Alm would “modify” probation, sending the offender to jail for a few days and then releasing him back to probation supervision. Alm reasoned that a brief stint behind bars would make the probationer more cooperative when he returned to his officer’s caseload.

The probation officers feared that Alm’s proposal would be impossibly burdensome, but they agreed to give it a try. Alm held a contest among the officers to name the program, and the winning entry was “Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement,” or HOPE.

HOPE started with thirty-four chronic violators. On the advice of the public defender, Alm brought them into court for what he called a “warning hearing,” with the defense counsel and the prosecutor present. He explained that, for them, the era of warnings was over. “If you fail a drug test, if you fail to meet with your probation officer when you are supposed to, or you fail with other terms of your probation … you will go to jail,” runs Alm’s script for such proceedings. “All of your actions in life have consequences, good or bad.” Later, Alm added a new twist to the program: random drug testing, with each probationer required to call in to a hotline every weekday morning to learn whether that was his day to be tested.

Everyone braced for a flood of missed and failed tests and the consequent sanctions hearings. But then something strange happened: in the first two weeks, only five of the thirty-four broke the rules. The overall rate of missed and failed drug tests dropped by more than 80 percent. Before the program started, the HOPE group had more than twice the noncompliance rate of the comparison group; that’s how they were chosen. HOPE reversed that picture, with program participants testing positive at less than one-quarter the rate of the comparison group. The high level of compliance made the workload perfectly manageable for everyone involved, and Alm was able to expand HOPE to 135 probationers without hiring more people.

Despite tighter monitoring and “zero-tolerance” sanctioning, HOPE participants averaged about the same number of days in jail as the comparison group: about twenty days over the course of a year. But they had only a third as many revocations and were sentenced to only a third as much prison time: on average, 110 days per probationer, as compared to 300 days.

Then Hawaii expanded the program, and it kept working….

…In addition, HOPE has achieved something rare in the American criminal justice system, proving that it is actually possible to enforce the conditions of “community corrections” programs: probation and its cousin, parole. (Probationers are offenders who have been placed under supervision instead of being sent to prison; parolees are monitored in the community after serving part of their prison term.) This discovery has major policy implications. After twenty-five years of “tough on crime” orthodoxy, American politicians are urgently searching for workable alternatives to mass incarceration. The fiscal crisis has state governments scrambling to pay for prison systems that take a bigger share of state budgets than anything but health care and education. Senator Jim Webb is seeking to enact major criminal-justice reforms, reasoning that a system that holds one in 100 adults behind bars and has a 60 percent recidivism rate could probably be improved. Yet while mass incarceration has been under criticism, scant attention has been devoted to the inadequacies of the alternatives, probation and parole. In every state those systems are woefully underfunded and overburdened, unable to enforce their own rules or to prevent most of their clients from sliding back into criminal life. All of the other “community corrections” options—drug diversion programs, treatment courts, community service, home detention—depend on the probation system for their enforcement. As long as probation remains ineffective, any requirement imposed on an offender by the court is, in reality, no more than a helpful hint.

Without a functioning community-corrections system, the current enthusiasm for prison reform is likely to wither and fade. That’s what makes Judge Alm’s Hawaiian experiment so important. The biggest and cheapest opportunity to lower both incarceration and crime rates is to transform probation from a minor nuisance to the probationer into a real system of “outpatient corrections,” capable of monitoring and reforming the behavior of vast numbers of offenders.

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