"Today when I think of reentry court, I am reminded that nearly every offender sentenced to time in custody will return to the community from whence they came. And thus, every sentencing court is in fact, a reentry court, creating a pathway for the offender’s reentry into society." -Jeff Tauber

HOPE: An Innovative Probation Strategy

There is a new intensive probation model that is getting a great deal of attention in the criminal justice world. Hawaii’s First Circuit Court Judge Steven Alm started “Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement”(HOPE) Program as a small pilot project in 2004. With success, HOPE has grown to 1500 probationers (one sixth of felony offenders on Oahu). HOPE is a relatively economical, intensive probation program, that is especially attractive in these financially challenging times.  The approach in a nutshell; scale back on court, treatment, and rehabilitation involvement , and ratchet up swift, immediate, and certain punshment, with an emphasis on monitoring, drug testing, and immediate warrants, arrest, and sanctions, (typically a week in custody for a violation). Also, reduce the paper work, use simpler forms, reduced hearing times and rely largely on processl assessments.

A recently released evaluation of HOPE  by the UCLA School of Public Afairs, is quite impressive, as is a PEW Center For The States publication  on the program. But as noted by the researchers themselves, these are not new concepts and most if not all have been tried before with mixed results. Previous research on intensive probation supervision (without treatment and rehabilitation components)  have not fared particularly well.  According to the UCLA study, one reason for the HOPE program’s success, may be the extraordinary leadership of Judge Alm in implementing the HOPE program program and in ultimately getting disperate criminal justice agencies to work together effectively.

There are always unanswered questions when any new sentencing program is introduced. What specifically works for targeted demographics, what components of the program are truely necessary, and in particular, can compliance continue beyond the term of probation or court jurisdiction? There are obviously no long term studies on the efficacy of HOPE, nor on the ability of the high risk offender to establish a new drug free, crime free life style once they leave HOPE. The science suggests that there willl be a “response burst” of offenses and drug abuse, once the suppressive effects of intensive supervision are removed. While not a scientist. I do know from experience, that programs with new approaches to old problems, inspired and capable personnel, and extraordinary leadership, often do extremely well while that leadership remains in place (sometimes called the “innovator’s effect”). And that a single program can be enormously successful, while similar programs find it hard to get it right. We will no doubt find answers to some of these questions in the years to come.

Project Hope and similar programs deserve their chance to prove themselves, and find their place in the spectrum of evidence based sentencing practices (whose roots interstingly, go back to the Enlightenment). In the end, HOPE uses many of the same principles that drug courts adopted and that have been scientifically validated over the past twenty years. While HOPE  has largely avoided the treatment, incentives, rehabilitation and courtroom aspects of drug court, there’s reason to believe that it may expand to provide  at least some of those services over time. As described in the UCLA study, “The HOPE program has a strong theoretical basis. That swiftness and certainty outperform severity in the management of offending is a concept that dates back to Beccaria (1764).”  One would hope that there is much to learn from this program, whose roots go back over three hundred years.

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Prison Numbers Drop Even As Parolees Rotate Through

The Pew Center for the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, had good news in March, with the release of their latest publication,” Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years“. Not only  are prison populations down .4% from 2008, but prison admissions for new offenses are down for the third year in a row. Of course when one puts this news in perspective, the realities are somewhat less  stellar. Prison populations are up over 700% since 1972, while federal prison populations continued to grow, doubling since 1995.

So what does this data really mean. Though the nation’s crime rate has been declining steadily since the early 1990’s, 2009 is the first year that the prison population has actually dropped. One might wonder why it took so long for prison populations to reflect that drop in crime. In fact, during the 1990’s, admissions to prison for new crimes grew by less than one percent a year. But parole vilolations as a proportion of all prison admissions more than doubled during that same period. That may reflect the fact that probation and parole have become very popular in recent years; there are currently more than five million offenders on probation or parole, reflecting an increase of 59% since 1990.

In one sense we should be pleased with the great appeal of probation and parole, obvious alternatives to prison. But the fact is, that they are not particularly successful alternatives. While the numbers released from prison grew for the seventh year in a row in 2009, admissions for violations of probation and parole increased for the fifth year in a row. As last year’s Pew Study pointed out, over 60% of prisoners return to prison within three years of release. It would appear that the stabilization of prison populations depends mostly on a new reluctance to sentence those with new offenses to state prison, while the recycling of parolees into prison continues to be  immensely popular. So while we should be pleased to see prison populations stabilize and even drop (although 23 states still showed an increase in prison populations), we should direct our attention to the revolving door that rotates prisoners in and out of prison with great regularity. More attention needs to be paid to evidence-based prison alternatives that are working in our communities (like the Texas system of  prison alternatives (see above), which includes SAFPF Reentry Court Programs).

NCSL Provides Overview of 2009 Sentencing Data

The National Conference  of State Legislatures has published an overview of “Significant State Sentencing and Corrections Legislation in 2009”. The easy to follow summary provides a review of new sentencing laws for every state in the nation. Though brief, this  snapshot of sentencing reform across the nation points to increasing efforts at prison and jail reform. It’s also an excellent place to begin a review of reentry court legislation nationwide.

Find the data at: NCSL 2009 Sentencing Review

NCCD: Prison and Jail Alternatives Could Save Nation $10 Billion

In a publication issued on January 10, the National Council of Crime and Delinquency  found that,”as a nation, we can save an estimated $9.7 billion dollars as an initial installment on ongoing and significant annual savings by changing how we handle a portion of the lowest-level offenders in our systems. As of 2008, there were 413,693 men and women incarcerated for nonviolent, nonsexual crimes that don’t involve significant property loss. The vast majority of these could be eligible for effective and cost-saving sanctions such as drug courts, electronic monitoring, or work release programs.” Click here for NCCD document, The Extravagance of Prison Revisited.

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