Hawaii Changes Probation Program – Saves Millions – Named One of the Best Innovations of the Year

Swift, certain, consistent and proportionate – that is the motto of the new probation program making waves in Hawaii. The program – called HOPE – has reduced recidivism by 51% and has been recognized by Harvard University’s Ash Center as one of the ‘Top 25 Innovations in Government.” (See the full list of the Top 25 programs here.)

HOPE was founded by First Circuit Court Judge Steven Alm in consultation with local law enforcement, prison officials, the judiciary and public defender. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER how HOPE works.

What’s the Problem With the Current Probation System?

“Right now most probation officers have maybe 150 felony probationers to supervise. They only have two choices either they keep working with a person in spite of positive drug tests, missed appointments, not going to treatment or they refer them back to court with a recommendation that I revoke their probation and send them back to prison for 5-10 years. Those are the only two choices,” said Judge Alm. “Inconsistency is one of the key problems to probations. Some probation officers will get frustrated and send people back to court sooner, others will give them a lot of time and rope to hang themselves.”

Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE)

“HOPE is parenting 101. We bring the offenders into court and tell them from now on you are on probation not in prison, that means you are making a deal with the court that you are going to follow the rules. From now on if you violate probation conditions you are going to jail. If you test positive for drugs you are going to jail. If you don’t show up for a treatment you are going to jail. But, we want you to succeed, so if you make a mistake, and we all make mistakes, but you deal with it responsibly and immediately, you will only get a few days in jail. For example, if you test dirty and admit it on the spot, you will get arrested on the spot. You will go to jail and have a hearing three days later. I will typically give them credit for time served and release them because they know they had used but they came to the courthouse knowing they were going to jail. That tells me they know they’ve been having problems but they are still trying to buy into the system. If they don’t show up at all I have to issue a warrant and they are going to jail for at least 30 days,” said Judge Alm.

Why it Works

“The program is very clear and laid out for offenders. Punishments are swift, certain and consistent. That is how kids learn what the rules are and how to behave appropriately. A lot of the offenders in court grew up in homes where there wasn’t that structure so we are providing that,” said Judge Alm.

Alm’s Lessons Learned

Most People Think HOPE is how probation normally works

  • “One of the challenges about this program is that I explain it to people and they say, ‘isn’t that how probation already works?’ The answer is no. I am sure that over the years people thought, ‘gee I wish we could have these hearings faster or gee I hope somebody does something about that someday.’ The problem is you are dealing with different branches of government. So me doing this was looking at the situation and then bringing everyone together,” said Judge Alm.

Creating Collaboration

  • “I was a career prosecutor, until President Clinton appointed me to the State Attorney’s office in 1994. I was there until 2001, so I have a good background in law enforcement. I was able to get them on board and make all the moving parts work together. Then we started talking to the probation officers, they were on board because they saw that our program could bring accountability to the process,” said Judge Alm.

Focus on what each person can bring to the process.

  • “We asked different people different things. For example, I asked the prosector that if he could design a new form for this program. He created a fill in the blank document so the probation officer can complete it in five minutes. When you are asking someone to do something new you have to make is as less labor intensive as possible,” said Judge Alm.

Make room for new ideas.

  • “The public defender asked me to warn fellow defenders and law enforcement that we would actually be enforcing the probation rules. That’s why we came up with the new court hearing called the warning hearing. We bring the offenders into court. I talk to them very straight. I list all the consequences. That way everyone is on the same page before they start the program,” said Judge Alm.

Measure Success

  • “The program is working tremendously well. People in the program tests positive 80% less than they use to. They are getting arrested for new crimes 51% less often. A 10% drop in recidivism is cause for champagne corks and we are looking at several times that. And we are picking problem probationers for the program,” said Judge Alm.

Saves Resources

  • “I only see a probationer if they have a violation, so I am able to oversee 2,700 probationers. That is a huge increase in the volume of people I oversee. It saves money. A person on probation costs the taxpayer between $1,000-1,500. A person in jail costs $46,000 annually. If we can keep more people out of jail we can save the tax payer millions,” said Judge Alm.

The Justice Department has seen the success of Hawaii’s HOPE and is sponsoring four replications.

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