Angela Hawken is a criminal justice researcher, and the subject of her daily toil is one of America’s most intractable problems: its bloated prison population. In the spring of 2006, she flew to Hawaii to investigate the latest in a long line of miracle cures; it would, she had no doubt, fail to live up to expectations, like the others.
Five years after receiving her doctorate in policy analysis, Hawken felt uncertain that the American penal system could be reformed—much less that it ever would be. The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Extraordinarily long sentences and a high recidivism rate have put more than 2 million people behind bars in the United States, with 4.5 million on probation or parole.
Over the years, one innovative reform program after another has materialized and then quickly receded from memory. So Hawken was skeptical when she heard that participants in a yearlong pilot program in Hawaii were 50 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime and 70 percent less likely to use drugs. “In this line of work, when you hear something that sounds too good be true,” she said, “it’s because it is too good to be true.”
Hawken’s first inkling that she might be wrong came when an official from the judiciary picked her up at the Honolulu airport and drove her directly to the local jail. Customarily, she said, such visits are brief and carefully orchestrated. Her second inkling came when, upon arrival, she was told she had unlimited access to the prisoners. “That never happens.” But it wasn’t until she began speaking with the prisoners themselves that the moment of revelation came. “When I interviewed the inmates, that’s when I really knew: This is different.”
The program, called Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or HOPE, is based on simple precepts that the judge who created it likened to “Parenting 101.” It immediately jails, for no more than three or four days, offenders who miss a probation appointment or fail a drug test. Operating under the theory that judicial punishment should be “swift, certain, and proportionate,” it seeks to turn around behavior that the system ordinarily, though inadvertently, seems to perpetuate. A proffered meth pipe attains a new significance, the thinking goes, when it comes attached to the prospect of an immediate three-day tour behind bars. Moreover, such brief, predictably enforced jail stays are congenial to prisoners used to a more unpredictable and, to their minds, arbitrary system.
“Ordinarily, when you ask an inmate why he’s behind bars, it’s always someone else’s fault,” Hawken said. “ ‘I’m in jail because the judge is an SOB’; ‘I’m in jail because my probation officer had a bad day.’ ” But in Honolulu she encountered men and women who, unbidden and unpressured, praised the system that put them away, and told her they were locked up because they had “messed up”—something so unusual, she said, that it made her skin tingle. “That language of personal responsibility is unimaginable if you’re a criminal justice researcher.”
HOPE’s creator is an unrelentingly sunny and vigorous man named Steven Alm. He became a judge in 2001 after serving as Hawaii’s U.S. attorney. During his first week in office, he encountered rampant recidivism and a probation system that struck him as “crazy”: Probation officers would let slide up to 10 or 15 probation violations before they recommended to a judge that offenders be sent to prison. This practice is common in the rest of the United States, and because there are so many Americans on probation, its ramifications are enormous.
After his first, frustrating week on the job, Judge Alm began thinking about how he disciplined his kids. Children punished under a system that is consistent, predictable, and prompt, he knew, are less likely to misbehave than children who face delayed, arbitrary, and unpredictable punishment, and it was his insight to see that these parenting truisms could be applied to the incarceration system he oversaw. “I thought about how I was raised and how I raise my kids. Tell ’em what the rules are and then if there’s misbehavior you give them a consequence immediately. That’s what good parenting is all about.”