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March 24, 2014

Program offers HOPE for repeat drug offenders

By

American prisons hold more than 1.5 million convicts. Ninety-five percent of them will return to the community at some point, and few will be better off than when they have left it.

One of the holy grails of correctional policy has been to find an alternative to imprisonment that has teeth but doesn’t bite off a leg. Probation has been the traditional alternative, but it doesn’t often work well.

The only remedy a judge has for a probation violation is imprisonment. If a judge decides at sentencing against incarcerating the offender, judges usually wait until he has repeatedly violated a condition of probation before giving up. The result is that probation is often a game without a winner.

But one judge has come up with an approach that just might work. In 2004, Judge Steven Alm had a Howard Beale moment in his Honolulu courtroom. Fed up with how the probation system worked, Judge Alm devised the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or HOPE, program. He selected a small number of offenders with methamphetamine problems and essentially told them the following: “You will be drug-tested weekly. Fail one urinalysis, you will be hauled into court that day, and you will get a stint in jail, beginning immediately. Fail a second time, and you will get a second and longer jail term, also immediately. Fail a third time and — well, you get the message.”

Judge Alm then did something remarkable: He kept his word. The probationers had weekly urinalyses. Anyone who tested positive was taken into custody on the spot, brought before the judge straightaway and sentenced to a few days in jail, starting immediately. For a second positive urinalysis, the same thing happened, only with a longer jail term. And so forth. With the faithfulness of Dr. Seuss’ Horton, Judge Alm stuck to his word and gave every offender testing positive for meth a brief but immediate period in jail.

A funny thing happened: The program worked. Before long, probationers learned that they could not avoid punishment for probation violations, so they stopped using drugs and committing crimes. Over time, Judge Alm expanded the scope of his HOPE program. The most recent review indicates that HOPE probationers have low drug use and recidivism rates. HOPE costs more in the short run than standard probation because of the weekly drug tests and heightened attention offenders receive. But HOPE ultimately saves money by reducing recidivism.

HOPE proves what every parent knows: People who are impulsive, who find it difficult to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits — read: most criminals and many teenagers — respond better to the certain and swift imposition of a mild punishment than to the low risk of a severe punishment at some unknown point.

HOPE also may work for offenders with other substance abuse problems, such as cocaine or alcohol, and for those without such problems. For example, some probationers have geographic restrictions on their whereabouts. Requiring one to wear a GPS monitoring device allows a probation officer to determine whether the offender spent work hours at his job and then went home or to a halfway house, rather than frequent a bar or his old haunts. Offenders who stray could be treated in the same manner as HOPE probationers.

Should every state and the federal government abandon traditional probation and adopt HOPE programs? Not yet. We don’t know whether we can replicate HOPE’s success outside Hawaii, for other substance abuse problems or for other types of offenders. The smart move is to answer those questions before we go all in. In the short run, the necessary studies will cost time and money. But it might save more of both in the end.

Congress is considering authorizing some pilot HOPE projects. Bravo. It would be money well spent.

 - Paul J. Larkin Jr. is a senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

Originally appeared in the Washington Times

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