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This Judge Figured Out How to Keep People Out of Prison by Treating Them Like His Own Children

February 6, 2014
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This Judge Figured Out How to Keep People Out of Prison by Treating Them Like His Own Children
Screen grab via Youtube
As soon as a kid misbehaves, he gets a time out. Could this approach work for people on probation?

Steven Alm, a felony trial judge in Honolulu, was fed up with the number of probationers who flouted the rules. If the people Alm saw in his courtroom continued to ignore their probation requirements, the only punishment was to send them back to jail, but only after many months and many incidents, so there were no immediate consequences to most of their violations. Alm told Megan Thompson of the PBS NewsHour, “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 Alm launched a new program, called HOPE, for Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, that targets people at the highest risk for probation violations. Instead of taking drug tests at scheduled appointments, the participants can be tested at any time, with only a few hours notice. For each violation, the courts impose an immediate punishment, such as a few days in jail. This works better for deterrence than threats of larger punishments in the future. Judges also have the option to be lenient with punishments if the probationer is genuinely trying to change his or her ways.

The Department of Justice studied HOPE and learned that participants were 55% less likely to be arrested for new crimes as were people in regular probation programs. They ended up spending half as much time in jail, and were 72% less likely to use drugs. Keeping a probationer on HOPE for a year costs tax payers $1500, while a year in prison costs $46,000 in Hawaii. The results aren’t perfect—some note that this approach makes a lot of work for police officers and other criminal justice employees, and there have been a few participants in HOPE who have committed serious crimes. But Hawaii has decided HOPE is better than the alternative, and seventeen other states now implement probation programs like it.

MORE: A Dog Trained By A Prisoner Helps an Autistic Boy Learn to Hug His Mom Again

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