Hawaii’s Probation Program Is Often Copied, But Does It Work?

A new study says a Hawaii criminal justice program praised nationally for improving parole and probation is not a “silver bullet” for reducing recidivism and lowering costs for supervising high-risk probationers.

Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement rewards probationers if they don’t use drugs, meet with their probation officers and complete substance-abuse treatments.

Supported by statistics showing a dramatic drop in recidivism, HOPE has been hailed as a model for other jurisdictions across the country.

But the study published last month in the Criminology & Public Policy journal casts doubt on HOPE’s hope.

Judge Steven Alm in his 1st Circuit Court offices earlier this year.

Former Judge Steven Alm in his 1st Circuit Court offices earlier this year.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Its subtitle, “Is Swift, Certain, and Fair an Effective Supervision Strategy?” uses the very words that characterize the HOPE supervision approach: “swift, certain and fair” oversight of probationers.

The answer to that question, according to the study, is maybe not.

HOPE “seems unlikely to offer better outcomes and lower costs for broad classes of moderate-to-high-risk probationers.” — the Lattimore study

The study is titled “Outcome Findings from the HOPE Demonstration Field Experiment.” It was co-authored by researchers at a North Carolina-based research nonprofit called RTI International and at Pennsylvania State University, involved a field study of more than 1,500 probationers in four counties (one each in Oregon, Texas, Arkansas and Massachusetts).

The probationers were randomly assigned either to a program modeled on the HOPE approach of close supervision, or to standard probation programs.

Based on the experiment, according to a widely circulated article noting the study’s release last month, the authors concluded that the HOPE approach “seems unlikely to offer better outcomes and lower costs for broad classes of moderate-to-high-risk probationers.”

Academics ‘Don’t Understand’

The father of HOPE disagrees.

Former Hawaii 1st Circuit Court Judge Steve Alm said HOPE has had critics since he implemented it in his courtroom in 2004.

“Usually they are academics who don’t really understand HOPE or the probation system itself and how the current system is failing many people,” said Alm, who now works as a consultant in Washington, D.C. on HOPE-type projects. “They tend to think any jail time is harsh. What they fail to see is that many probationers are currently failing at probation-as-usual and going to prison for years. That is harsh.”

When it’s done right, Steve Alm says HOPE reduces crime, helps offenders and saves taxpayers money.

Alm said that when the HOPE model is employed properly — as, he argued, it has been in Hawaii, Washington, Texas, Kentucky, Michigan and other states — it reduces crime, helps offenders and their families by avoiding long prison terms and saves taxpayers millions of dollars.

When the program is not executed correctly — say, focusing too much on sanctioning probationers instead of on effective probation officers and treatment providers “all in a caring and supportive atmosphere, it quite naturally is not going to work,” he said.

Alm concluded, “Given the fact that we know HOPE works well in some places and apparently, when not done right, not in others, the challenge for the future is to help as many jurisdictions as possible to get it right.”

Kaneshiro: Findings ‘No Surprise’

HOPE has been commended by many for its success in improving the parole and probation systems. When Alm stepped down from the bench in September, his work was hailed by the likes of Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald and U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni.

But HOPE has not been universally embraced, and its critics include Keith Kaneshiro, the Honolulu city prosecutor.

“The study’s findings come as no surprise and reflect what we have long seen in Hawaii,” Kaneshiro said. “Here, HOPE probationers violate conditions of supervision repeatedly and yet are placed back on probation — and remain on the street — instead of being sent to prison.”

In his view, HOPE compromises public safety.

Keith Kaneshiro in his Honolulu office last month.

Keith Kaneshiro in his Honolulu office last month.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
“Every week, we see more and more HOPE probationers sought on bench warrants listed among Hawaii’s most wanted, which creates added expense and diverts law enforcement resources,” he said. “Tragically, we have also seen several of these HOPE probationers commit violent crimes, including sexual offenses and murder.”

The study, whose lead author is Pamela Lattimore of RTI International, was supported by the National Institute of Justice and the Office of Justice Programs, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, though DOJ does not take a position on the report’s outcome.

But the study’s authors do reach conclusions, including this one: “Although additional research is needed to determine whether there are groups for whom HOPE may be more effective (it) seems unlikely to offer better outcomes and lower costs for broad classes of moderate-to-high-risk probationers.”

No ‘One Size Fits All’

The November edition of Criminology & Public Policy that included the study is devoted entirely to the issue.

The titles of some of the articles include: “Confessions of a Failed ‘HOPE-er’” and “It’s Hopeless: Beyond Zero-Tolerance Supervision.”

But there are others, like an article titled “All Implementation is Local” and Alm’s own contribution to the journal, that — taken together — make for a thorough examination of HOPE and similar programs.

Alm’s article pointed pointed to a Washington State University study that concluded that, because of that state’s “swift-and-certain” policy, “participants were found to incur fewer sanctioned incarceration days after a violation, reduced odds of recidivism, possessed greater treatment program utilization, reduced their propensity of committing violations over time, and as a result, imposed lower correctional and associated costs.”

United States Marshall Gervin Miyamoto adjusts the balloons in place for Judge' Alm's retirement party at 1st Circuit Court in Honolulu.

U.S. Marshal Gervin Miyamoto adjusts the balloons in place for Judge’ Alm’s retirement party at the 1st Circuit Court in Honolulu.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

The main takeaway of the journal comes in the introduction by Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University. He echoes the “no silver bullet” theme of the Lattimore study but also stresses Alm’s argument that HOPE is not merely a “sanctions-only” approach but one that includes, as Nagin put it, “an opportunity arm” that includes a variety of treatment possibilities.

“More generally the commentaries make clear there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to effective probation supervision. Instead effectiveness requires a nuanced and adaptive application of a multifaceted strategy,” Nagin wrote.

Alm remains committed to defending, improving and expanding his program.

“HOPE strategies are now being done in 31 states because practitioners, judges, probation officers, and treatment providers see that the HOPE strategy can be a useful tool to help them to have more success with their supervision efforts,” he said. “HOPE is obviously not easy to do, but when done right saves people’s lives. As has happened over and over again here in Hawaii.”