Alm is the founder of HOPE Probation, which stands for Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement.
The program uses a tough-love approach to supervising drug offenders and others at high risk of recidivism and cracks down hard on folks who violate the terms of their probation. One study of the nationally recognized program found offenders were 72 percent less likely to test positive for drugs and 61 percent less likely to miss appointments with probation officers.
“We’ve got to put the violent and dangerous, the ones who won’t stop stealing, in prison,” he said, but noted those are in the minority. “The majority can and should be placed on probation.”
We’ve been seeing so much change in our nation right now, with regard to the protests. What can you do as prosecutor to fight racial injustice?
There are a lot of things you can do. You can make sure the office is run well. You can have all the deputies take implicit bias training, I did that as a judge. You can encourage programs that are successful, for instance, when we started the HOPE Probation program, we looked later and said, ‘How are the native Hawaiians doing?’
Alm says the only reason HOPE works is because the defendants feel they are being treated fairly.
Since its creation, Hawaiʻi and 32 other states have adopted or use some form of the program.
“HOPE is that rare criminal justice strategy that reduces victimization in crime, it helps offenders because they can succeed on probation and avoid going to prison, and it saves taxpayers millions of dollars.”
I would encourage the expansion of judiciary programs that have been found to eliminate discriminatory outcomes for defendants. For example, research by Pepperdine and UCLA found that Native Hawaiian felony defendants on regular probation got revoked and sent to prison 26 percent of the time, while Native Hawaiians on HOPE Probation got revoked and sent to prison only 15 percent of the time, a rate comparable to other ethnic groups. Given that the HOPE judge supervises more than 2,000 felony probationers at once, that means hundreds of Native Hawaiian men and women have succeeded on probation and avoided going to prison because they were in HOPE.
I believe that the HOPE strategy succeeds because the probationers perceive, and in fact, are treated fairly. The rules and sanctions are clear and are enforced consistently across the board. This reduces the opportunity for bias, conscious or not, with HOPE probationers.
Jails and prisons are overcrowded, and Hawaii’s correctional facilities are in poor physical condition. What would you do to reduce overcrowding in the jails and prisons?
First let me tell you what I would not do. I would not jeopardize public safety by releasing dangerous criminals just because our jails and prisons are inadequate. I would not set HOPE Probation participants free again and again believing they may miraculously stop committing crimes to support their drug habits. And I would not let the threat of a virus prompt the release of criminals who had lawfully been sent to correctional facilities.
Hawaii has tried HOPE Probation, a “kid glove” approach that sets addicts free again and again without consequence. While HOPE has given addicts little reason to reform, meth-related deaths in Hawaii have skyrocketed from 37 deaths in 2009 to 170 deaths in 2019 (129 in Honolulu). That increase of more than 350% happened while the revolving door of HOPE Probation spun out of control.
But acting Honolulu Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto said its difficult to monitor defendants if there’s no testing.
“What does that mean if you’re not seeing them face-to-face, you’re not drug testing them? Hello did you take drugs today? No? There’s no substitute for testing,” Nadamoto said.
“What is the purposed of HOPE if there are no consequences … ? The whole purpose of HOPE appears to be nullified.”
Meanwhile, HOPE probationers—who were in custody for violating the rules—were among the first released from jail due to threat of COVID-19 infection.
Alm said studies show that HOPE works and it’s been so successful in Hawaii that 32 other states have adopted variations. But Nadamoto said recent HOPE failures, including Pearce’s case, are worthy of scrutiny along with the state Legislature’s decision to remove third-degree possession of dangerous drugs (pdd3) from being counted as a repeat offense in the penal code.
“Before 2016 if you had a pdd3 conviction and you were a violent offender, you weren’t eligible for probation, and you were going to do some time,” Nadamoto said. “But after they changed it, you weren’t repeatable, and you could get probation even if you were violent.”
Nadamoto said the HOPE program and the pdd3 change “take discretion away from us to prosecute cases to ensure that these people aren’t out in public and committing more crimes.”
“The prosecutor’s office has a duty to protect the public to the utmost. By changing these laws, you are letting these violent offenders out or these people who have a drug problem and may become violent.”
Alm said when evaluating HOPE it’s important to distinguish that it doesn’t replace prison.
“If the argument is more defendants should go to prison, I agreed with that as a judge,” he said. “But if they weren’t in HOPE, they’d be in regular probation.”
Alan Johnson, president and CEO of the drug treatment facility Hina Mauka, said he supports HOPE, which he credits with bolstering Hina Mauka’s program completion rate and the percentage of clients who are still clean and sober six months after their program ended.
“We’re pretty excited about project HOPE and what it could become,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he’d like to see HOPE add expanded behavior health and criminality at-risk assessments and treatment plans, which aren’t part of regular probation either but, he says, should have a role in all probation programs.
“If they are going in and out of jail and we don’t know what we are working with and we aren’t solving their problems, it increases the propensity that they’ll do bad things,” he said.
Indeed, Alm stands by his program. In states where it isn’t working, Alm says he wasn’t part of the training and they’re implementing only the sanctions pieces of the program. In essence, his argument is: They’re not doing the real HOPE program.
“If people criticize HOPE, either they’re misinformed or they’re trying to mislead people,” he said.
Esser advocated for the release of inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prison, a move Nadamoto thought was foolish. Kau is a defender of corrupt law enforcement, Nadamoto says. And Alm’s HOPE program “is not as good as everybody says it is.”
“I’m all for giving people a chance,” he said. “But you cannot be giving these people chance after chance after chance.”