“Swift, Certain, Fair” Justice Movement Grows


A drive to improve probation practices in the United States by imposing quick and consistent–but often modest–penalties on offenders is growing, with at least 34 sites, including the entire states of Alaska and Washington, trying it out.

Evaluations are showing promising results so far.

The idea is best known as HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) since it was launched a decade ago in Hawaii by Judge Steven Alm, a former prosecutor who was dismayed when probation officers repeatedly asked him to revoke offenders’ probation and send them to long prison terms because they had failed to comply with the rules.

Alm, criminologist Angela Hawken of Pepperdine University and Washington state corrections secretary Bernie Warner talked about HOPE and its copycat programs at the National Forum on Criminal Justice, which was held this week in Atlanta.

Alm explained that traditional probation is an “all or nothing” proposition in which many offenders receive little actual supervision for long periods. When they commit a new crime, which could be as minor as a traffic violation, their assigned officer typically brings them back to court, where judges are asked to impose prison terms that often range from five to 20 years.

This system is at odds with the kinds of punishment imposed by most parents. “If your child breaks one of [the family] rules, you do something about it right away,” Alm wrote in a new law review article on HOPE.

Instead, he proposed to “have the probationer arrested for each and every violation … and serve a swift, certain, consistent, and proportionate jail sentence each time,” he said. That would “help the probationer tie together the consequence with the bad behavior and learn from it.”

“If folks think the system is fair, they will buy into it,” Alm said this week, noting that in HOPE’s decade in Hawaii, only 30 offenders had contested a penalty.

Hawken, who has led evaluations of HOPE and similar programs, said it works because it is “based on a credible threat.”

He added: “There are clearly articulated rules, and every violation is met with an immediate, modest sanction.”

In one study of Hawaii offenders, comparing those who had gone through the HOPE process to a control group of defendants who were assigned to traditional probation, some 7 percent of HOPE participants eventually had their probation revoked, compared with 15 percent among the control group.

Because of its name, HOPE is associated most with Hawaii, but its test sites are spread among 28 states. The U.S. Justice Department is sponsoring experiments in four states, including Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon and Texas.

In Washington, which uses a variation of the HOPE program statewide, the average sanction time for probation violators has been reduced from 60 days behind bars to about 3.5 days for the first offense, and somewhat higher penalties for subsequent offenses, saving the state tens of millions of dollars, Warner said.

If HOPE is such a promising idea, why isn’t it adopted more widely?

Alm says it requires considerable change in the criminal justice system, and there always is resistance to new ideas. Some judges are not comfortable with engaging with probationers, which is necessary for the program’s success, he says.

“If a judge is not willing to continually engage with and encourage and talk to the probationers about their thinking, their choices, and the resulting consequences, this is not the right program for that judge,” he says.

Probation officers lose their discretion up front in HOPE because, for example, any probationer who tests positive for drugs and admits to using them is arrested on the spot.

Law enforcement officers must change their way of operating, too, Alm says. In Hawaii, they must be prepared to take probationers into custody minutes after they test positive for drug use. Officers must also be prepared to serve many more arrest warrants for violations.

In the long run, this stepped-up activity is worthwhile because it reduces crime, Alm says. Hawken’s research showed, for example, that the percentage of HOPE probationers testing positive for drugs was cut from 53 percent to 4 percent over six months. The proportion of those who missed appointments with probation officers dropped from 14 percent to 4 percent.

Overall, the judge maintains, HOPE creates “an environment where the probationers are in denial less, are more open to change, are more sober and more likely to attend their [probation officer] appointments and their various treatment programs, and thus have a better chance to succeed on probation.”

With DOJ support, Pepperdine University maintains a website to provide more information about swift, certain and fair justice programs.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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