article from 2009 -very relevant even now.
n 2004, Judge Steven Alm was assigned to the felony trial court for the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Alm quickly realized that he had a problem. Probation officers for his court were overwhelmed with clients who kept using methamphetamine, Hawaii’s number-one problem drug. It wasn’t exactly difficult to pass the drug tests, which were scheduled weeks in advance. But on any given day 10 percent of the probationers scheduled to come in didn’t arrive for testing, and 20 percent of those who did show up tested “dirty.” By the time probationers were sent to Alm’s court for a revocation hearing, they had already racked up multiple breaches of the rules.
Hawaii’s felony probationers have lengthy sentences hanging over their heads. An offender whose probation is revoked can be sent to prison for the rest of his term—anywhere from five to twenty years. To Alm and his fellow judges, this seemed an unnecessarily draconian response to a missed or “dirty” drug test. It was also impractical in light of Hawaii’s prison-overcrowding problem. (Not only are Hawaii’s own prisons full; the state also pays heavily to send thousands of its prisoners to for-profit prisons on the mainland.)
As a former career prosecutor and U.S. attorney, Alm had more than a little political clout and was accustomed to getting results. Why, he asked the probation officers, was he only hearing about drug problems when they spiraled out of control? If this was the tenth violation, what happened the first nine times?
The probation officers explained that each one of them had responsibility for at least eighty-five felons. (That was for those with “high-risk” caseloads; the other probation officers had caseloads twice that size.) Most of those offenders sporadically fell afoul of the rules. The officers couldn’t possibly spend two hours writing a report every time a probationer failed a test or skipped drug treatment or anger-management class—there would be no time for anything else. As the officers saw it, their job was to harangue those clients who would listen to get back into line, and refer those who wouldn’t listen back to court after they had accumulated enough offenses to justify sending them away.
Alm could see the logic of the system, but he didn’t think it was the right kind of logic. “You wouldn’t raise a child that way,” he told the officers. “You wouldn’t train a puppy that way. You’d establish clear rules and have immediate consequences for breaking them.”
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.
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