IN 2004, STEVEN ALM, a state trial judge in Hawaii, was frustrated with the cases on his docket. Nearly half of the people appearing before him were convicted offenders with drug problems who had been sentenced to probation rather than prison and then repeatedly violated the terms of that probation by missing appointments or testing positive for drugs. Whether out of neglect or leniency, probation officers would tend to overlook a probationer’s first 5 or 10 violations, giving the offender the impression that he could ignore the rules. But eventually, the officers would get fed up and recommend that Alm revoke probation and send the offender to jail to serve out his sentence. That struck Alm as too harsh, but the alternative — winking at probation violations — struck him as too soft. “I thought, This is crazy, this is a crazy way to change people’s behavior,” he told me recently.
So Alm decided to try something different. He reasoned that if the offenders knew that a probation violation would lead immediately to some certain punishment, they might shape up. “I thought, What did I do when my son was young?” he recalled. “If he misbehaved, I talked to him and warned him, and if he disregarded the warning, I gave him some kind of consequence right away.” Working with U.S. marshals and local police, Alm arranged for a new procedure: if offenders tested positive for drugs or missed an appointment, they would be arrested within hours and most would have a hearing within 72 hours. Those who were found to have violated probation would be quickly sentenced to a short jail term proportionate to the severity of the violation — typically a few days.
Alm mentioned his plan to the public defender, who suggested that it was only fair to warn probationers that the rules were going to be strictly enforced for the first time. Alm agreed, and on Oct. 1, 2004, he held a hearing for 18 sex offenders, followed by another one for 16 drug offenders. Brandishing a laminated “Wanted” poster, he told them: “I can guarantee that everyone in this courtroom wants you to succeed on probation, but you have not been cutting it. From now on, you’re going to follow all the rules of probation, and if you don’t, you’re going to be arrested on the spot and spend some time in jail right away.” He called the program HOPE, for Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation With Enforcement, and prepared himself for a flood of violation hearings.
But they never materialized. There were only three hearings in the first week, two in the second week and none in the third. The HOPE program was so successful that it inspired scholars to evaluate its methods. Within a six-month period, the rate of positive drug tests fell by 93 percent for HOPE probationers, compared with a fall of 14 percent for probationers in a comparison group.
Alm had stumbled onto an effective strategy for keeping people out of prison, one that puts a fresh twist on some venerable ideas about deterrence. Classical deterrence theory has long held that the threat of a mild punishment imposed reliably and immediately has a much greater deterrent effect than the threat of a severe punishment that is delayed and uncertain. Recent work in behavioral economics has helped to explain this phenomenon: people are more sensitive to the immediate than the slightly deferred future and focus more on how likely an outcome is than how bad it is. In the course of implementing HOPE, Alm discovered another reason why the strategy works: people are most likely to obey the law when they’re subject to punishments they perceive as legitimate, fair and consistent, rather than arbitrary and capricious. “When the system isn’t consistent and predictable, when people are punished randomly, they think, My probation officer doesn’t like me, or, Someone’s prejudiced against me,” Alm told me, “rather than seeing that everyone who breaks a rule is treated equally, in precisely the same way.”
Judge Alm’s story is an example of a new approach to keeping people out of prison that is being championed by some of the most innovative scholars studying deterrence today. At its core, the approach focuses on establishing the legitimacy of the criminal-justice system in the eyes of those who have run afoul of it or are likely to. Promising less crime and less punishment, this approach includes elements that should appeal to liberals (it doesn’t rely on draconian prison sentences) and to conservatives (it stresses individual choice and moral accountability). But at a time when the size of the U.S. prison population is increasingly seen as unsustainable for both budgetary and moral reasons — the United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population — the fact that this approach seems to work may be its biggest draw.
The HOPE program, if widely adopted as a model for probation and parole reform, could make a surprisingly large contribution to reducing the prison population. In many states, the majority of prison admissions come not from arrests for new crimes, as you might think, but from probation and parole violations. Nationwide, roughly two-thirds of parolees fail to complete parole successfully. Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, estimates that by eliminating imprisonment across the nation for technical parole violations, reducing the length of parole supervision and ratcheting back prison sentences to their 1988 levels, the United States could reduce its prison population by 50 percent.
Some in government are beginning to take notice. In November, invoking the HOPE program as a model, the Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California and his Republican colleague Ted Poe of Texas introduced legislation in the House that would create federal grants for states to experiment with courts that deliver swift, predictable and moderate punishment for those who violate probation.
There also appears to be a national audience for a broader conversation about new ways to shrink the prison population. Last year, a three-judge panel in California ordered the overcrowded state prison system — the largest in the country, with more than 170,000 prisoners at its peak — to reduce the inmate population by tens of thousands of prisoners within two years in order to comply with constitutional standards for medical and mental health care. Facing a tightening budget crisis in September, California legislators added to the pressure by demanding a reduction in the prison budget of $1.2 billion. In the U.S. Senate, Jim Webb of Virginia is leading a crusade for prison reform, insisting that fewer jail terms for nonviolent offenders can make America safer and more humane, while also saving money. And in the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder is questioning the value of relentlessly expanding prisons. In July, he declared that “high rates of incarceration have tremendous social costs” and “diminishing marginal returns.”
The most effective way to shrink the prison population, of course, is not just to reform probation and parole but also to deter groups of potential lawbreakers from committing crimes in the first place. If, in addition to bringing down the numbers of probation and parole revocations, police officers and judges could also address the core problems of drug arrests and street violence, the United States might even be said to have solved its notorious prison problem. Is such an ambitious goal possible? While it might sound too good to be true, the HOPE-style thinking about deterrence offers a promising road map for addressing all these challenges.
ALTHOUGH HE ACTED on his own, Judge Alm did not design the HOPE program without inspiration. In the mid-1990s, when he was a U.S. attorney in Hawaii, Alm heard a presentation by David M. Kennedy, who is considered the patron saint of the new thinking about deterrence. Kennedy, who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, spoke about Operation Ceasefire, a program he was designing to reduce youth violence in Boston. Along with his colleagues Anne M. Piehl and Anthony Braga, Kennedy worked with the head of the Youth Violence Strike Force, a division of the Boston Police Department. The police officer explained that while conventional deterrence hadn’t worked, he had begun to persuade gangs to behave by issuing a credible threat: namely, that when a gang attracted attention with notorious acts of violence, the entire gang — all of whose members likely had outstanding warrants or probation, parole or traffic violations — would be rounded up.
Kennedy recalls this today as a breakthrough moment in his thinking. Ever since the days of Cesare Beccaria, the 18th-century philosopher and death-penalty opponent, classical deterrence theorists had focused on credibly threatening individuals; Kennedy’s first innovation was to focus on increasing the legitimacy of law enforcement in the eyes of groups. “The legitimacy element has risen in my mind from being an important element of the strategy to the most important element,” Kennedy told me. Convinced that the best way to increase legitimacy was to enlist what he calls the “community’s moral voice,” Kennedy set out to deter the most dangerous young gang members by persuading their friends and neighbors to pressure them into obeying the law.
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