Parole That Pleases Conservatives, Liberals, and Prisoners

The state of the universe.
June 5 2013 6:45 AM

Probation That Works

Swift and certain punishment reduces crime. Parolees love it.

(Continued from Page 1)

A skeptical probation officer suggested they keep statistics when the program was launched. A year later members of the Hawaiian judiciary surveyed the results with amazement: Participants in HOPE were 55 percent less likely than members of a control group to be arrested for a new crime, 72 percent less likely to use drugs, and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked. As a result, they served 48 percent fewer days of incarceration.

After Hawken visited Hawaii, she conducted a separate National Institute of Justice study, a randomized control trial on a group of new HOPE participants. Her data replicated the original HOPE numbers. “I was optimistic it would work,” says Alm, “but I had no idea it would work as well as it did.”  

More than a dozen states are now experimenting with pilot programs based on HOPE. Last June, legislators in Washington decided to enshrine “swift and certain” as law, immediately applying it to 70 percent of the state’s 15,000 offenders. The move distressed Hawken, who felt they were moving too fast—“I thought Washington would be the state that killed HOPE.” She was wrong: One year in, jail stays are down by two-thirds statewide. A researcher at John Jay College has estimated that HOPE could halve America’s prison population.

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“There’s no reason HOPE should work only in Hawaii,” Alm said, “because it appeals to basic human psychology.” You don’t need to recall jargon-filled lessons about B.F. Skinner’s reinforcement theory from Psych 101 to see why swift and certain sanctions should work so well. There’s something thrillingly common-sensical about the concept. And research in cognitive psychology suggests that such a straightforward approach may apply with particular acuity to people who have become addicted to drugs or have fallen into lives of crime. As Alm put it, “The future is a nebulous enough concept for most of us, but for the guys we’re dealing with, you might go fly to the moon next year, or win the lottery. HOPE gives them something to think about when they’re considering whether to smoke ice tonight.”

HOPE’s two most important results are that it reduces crime, and it reduces the number of people in prison, Hawken said. “But to me the most exciting thing about it is its power to alleviate drug addiction.” Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees. He said that HOPE is the best single solution to drug addiction he’s ever seen. “HOPE actually gets people to change their behavior by setting up a circumstance where their natural behavior moves in the right direction,” he said. “They don’t want to be arrested and go to jail, so they stop using. That’s a profoundly rehabilitative thing to do.”

The American prison population has doubled in the past two decades, and the penal system has become effectively retributive, not rehabilitative. (In a recent essay, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens used the word “disturbing” to describe the system’s severity. Harvard professor William Stuntz’s book The Collapse of American Criminal Justice takes an in-depth look at the problem). HOPE offers something for everyone: Liberals like it because it reduces time behind bars; conservatives like it because it strikes a no-tolerance attitude toward law-breaking; offenders like it because, compared with the normal system, it seems fair and consistent; and everyone can like it because it can potentially reduce the amount of money we spend putting and keeping Americans behind bars. It offers another great benefit for everyone: It dramatically reduces crime.

In early May Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government included HOPE in its annual list of the top 25 innovations in government, a decision that carries with it a certain irony: The theory of swift, certain, and proportionate punishment originated, as it happens, in the first book ever written about criminal justice reform. In On Crimes and Punishments, the Milanese philosopher Cesare Becerria argued that the surest way to deter crime was to enact clear, fair laws, and enforce them immediately and predictably. On Crimes and Punishments was published in 1764; two and a half centuries later, a small Pacific island 8,000 miles from Italy appears to be proving him right.

Sam Kornell is a freelance writer living in Oakland. 

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