A new probation program in Hawaii beats the statistics

February 2, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
NewsHour Weekend profiles an innovative probation program in Hawaii that has been so successful in reforming offenders and keeping them out of prison, it's now being copied in courtrooms across the nation.

Editor’s note: This report was originally broadcast on November 24, 2013

JUDGE STEVEN ALM (in court):  Since I can’t control what you’re gonna do, I can control what I’m gonna do.  And what that means, in the future, if you violate any of the conditions of probation, you can count on me giving you some jail time

MEGAN THOMPSON:  This isn’t the way things used to be.  When Judge Steven Alm was assigned to a felony trial courtroom in Honolulu in 2004, he saw judges routinely warning offenders to follow the rules of probation … and probationers just as routinely ignoring those warnings.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: At sentencing, the judge says no drugs, you have to see your probation officer, you have to pay your restitution.  And then, in the real world, they go out there and violate those conditions.  And typically, there’s no consequence.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  No consequence because the only threat was years in prison.  But that threat was usually only carried out after dozens of violations over months or years.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: And I thought what a crazy way to try to change anybody’s behavior.

MEGAN THOMPSON: So, people just aren’t reforming.  They’re not getting better.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: That’s right. They’re not.  They’re getting worse.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Judge Alm – a former city prosecutor and U.S. Attorney with a reputation as one of the court’s toughest sentencers, wasn’t having it.  So he decided to try a different approach – an approach based on his experience as a father.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: I thought to myself, well, what would work to change behavior?  And I thought of the way I was raised, the way my wife and I would– were trying to raise our son.  You tell him what the family rules are, and then, if there’s misbehavior, you do something immediately.  Swift and certain is what’s gonna get people’s attention and help them tie together bad behavior with a consequence and learn from it.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM:  Do you need to sit in jail any longer to realize how seriously we’re gonna take all this stuff?

MEGAN THOMPSON: Despite all the tough talk, Judge Alm called his new program “HOPE.”  It stands for “Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement.”    Judge Alm worked with the probation supervisor, public defender and law enforcement to institute his new procedures, which were pretty simple:  if any probationer violated the rules, they’d be punished immediately.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: In some ways, HOPE is parenting 101.  A lotta the folks in the program, I think, grew up in families was– where there wasn’t a lotta structure.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: Make sure you call the hotline every weekday morning.

Hawaii Hope statistic 2

MEGAN THOMPSON: The HOPE program targets probationers at highest-risk of violating the rules, and Alm estimates around 80% of them abuse drugs and alcohol.  So unlike regular probation, where offenders can usually anticipate a drug test at a scheduled appointment, hope imposes drug tests that are frequent, and random.   Probationers are assigned a color and a number and must call a hotline every single morning.

RECORDING:  Today’s UA colors are Blue 2, Green 3…

MEGAN THOMPSON: If their color and number are called, they must report by 2pm – no excuses.  Short jail stays – sometimes just a few days long – are immediately imposed for positive drug tests and other violations, like missing appointments.  But there’s some leeway here:

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: Anyone who shows up and tests dirty, and admits to it is telling me that they’re having problems,  they messed up, but they’re taking responsibility for it.  I understand that.  So I’m going to reflect that by only giving you a couple days in jail. And so, we’re gonna work with you on that.

MEGAN THOMPSON: These seemingly simple reforms in Hawaii soon produced remarkable results.  An arm of the department of justice funded a study five years after the program launched.  That study found that compared to people in regular probation, HOPE probationers were half as likely to be arrested for new crimes, or have their probation revoked.  They ended up spending about half as much time in prison.  And were 72% less likely to use drugs.  The results from Hawaii caught the attention of criminal justice experts across the nation.

TODD CLEAR: When I first encountered the HOPE model I was skeptical.  Most criminologists are.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Todd Clear is an expert on criminal justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  He says he was skeptical, because old models of deterrence that use threats usually don’t work, because the threats were too big, and never carried out.  But HOPE, he says, does the exact opposite.

TODD CLEAR: What they have done with– the HOPE model has been to– ratchet down the level of penalty so that it’s something you can actually afford to do and then– and then ratchet up the likelihood that if you engage in misconduct, you will actually experience that penalty.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Clear says the HOPE model also works because these penalties are seen as fair by the offenders.

TODD CLEAR: Rapid responses that are reasonable, that are understood to be reasonable, that are clearly un– that the person understands what was happening and why it was happening have a behavior-shaping– behavior-changing– capacity.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Hope’s success in steering offenders away from prison was so promising that programs modeled after it have now launched in courtrooms in 17 other states.   Washington State, for example, put its entire parole and probation population into its version of HOPE.  And the federal department of justice has launched HOPE programs in communities in four states.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Here in Honolulu, the program is working for people like John Kema. He was picked up in 2006 for resisting arrest and possession of methamphetamine.  Kema’s case was representative of larger problems that Hawaii struggles with: high rates of meth use, and disproportionately high incarceration rates among Native Hawaiians.

MEGAN THOMPSON: First, Kema was put in regular probation.  For two years, he repeatedly missed appointments and failed drug tests, all with few consequences.

JOHN KEMA: I wasn’t ready to– to give up drugs and alcohol.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Then in 2009, his frustrated probation officer put him in the HOPE program where he faced Judge Alm.

JOHN KEMA: At first I didn’t like him, honestly.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Yeah– why not?

JOHN KEMA: He kept putting me back in jail.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Within months, Judge Alm slapped Kema with a short jail stay for a dirty drug test.  Then there were the daily phone calls.

JOHN KEMA: When I had to start calling the color on a daily basis, you know, that’s when I started turning around in my life.


JOHN KEMA: Because I needed to be accountable for those times that I call.  You know.  It was totally up to me to make the right decision whether I– wanna go back to jail or I just wanna have freedom.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Was that the first time in your life that you were really being held accountable?

Hawaii Hope statistic

JOHN KEMA: Oh, totally.  Totally.

MEGAN THOMPSON: After repeated violations and jail stays, Kema says he finally learned his lesson.  He checked into a drug treatment program in 2012 and has been sober for more than a year.  He graduated from HOPE last summer.

JOHN KEMA: As long as you worry about yourself, you’ll be alright, Mark.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Today he’s a mentor to others who struggle with substance abuse.

MEGAN THOMPSON: You’re working with people who have been engaged in pretty serious behavior that could send them to prison for years.  But with the threat of just a few days in jail, they’re shaping up.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: It’s the disruptive nature of this program.  It’s not something bad might happen years down the road, it’s you’re going to jail today.  That will cause them to change.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Judge Alm also says the program could save taxpayers big time: According to Alm, a probationer on HOPE costs about $1,500 a year.  Prison in Hawaii costs around $46,000.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But critics say the swift sanctions come at a cost: the stricter rules mean more work for probation officers and drug testers, more strain on the local jail, and a bigger workload for the Honolulu police, who have had to serve hundreds of warrants for HOPE probationers who’ve gone on the run.

KEITH KANESHIRO: it’s taxing the criminal justice system, law enforcement in being able to look for them– being able to bring ’em back.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Honolulu City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro thinks judges should put more people in prison from the start.  He also thinks HOPE keeps offenders on probation too long and allows them too many chances.

KEITH KANESHIRO: What kind of consequences– do we have for these probationers?  When people violate the conditions of probation, who commit crimes– they need to go to prison.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Is it better though that these offenders are in HOPE probation, which in theory has more oversight, more requirements for checking in, more drug testing than regular probation?

KEITH KANESHIRO: Just by having them do drug testing is not supervision.  It’s one form of supervision.  And– but it’s not enough.

Hawaii Hope statistic 3

MEGAN THOMPSON: Not enough, Kaneshiro says, because even though it’s been rare, he’s seen about a half-dozen offenders on HOPE probation charged with serious crimes like rape and murder, since he took office in 2010.

MEGAN THOMPSON: There have been some instances of people committing very serious crimes while–


MEGAN THOMPSON: .- part of the HOPE program, including murder.  Do those people belong in a probation program?

JUDGE STEVEN ALM:  Well, if we all had crystal balls, they might have been sent to prison.  In the cases I’m aware of like that, when they were first put on probation, they were put on probation, say, for possession of a small amount of drugs.  There’s no question some people on HOPE are gonna get charged with crimes.  Some people on probation as usual are gonna get charged with crimes.  The good news, the people in HOPE are getting– charged with new crimes a lot less often.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Many are also shaping up and getting off probation.  The day we visited four successful HOPE probationers were discharged from the program.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM (in court):: The motion for early termination is granted.  You’re no longer under court supervision because you’ve shown you can be responsible.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: We want people to decide I can have a life without drugs.  I can have a life without committing crime.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM (in court):: Best of luck to you in the future.

PROBATIONER:  Thank you.

JUDGE STEVEN ALM (in court):: Ok, thank you, good job.

PROBATIONER: We can go to daddy!

JUDGE STEVEN ALM: That’s what it all about.  That’s what we’re looking for.


Funding for this story provided by Pacific Islanders in Communications.