HOPE: A Different 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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