Ch. 6: Controlling Crime
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, another judge had been thinking about similar challenges. Appointed to the bench in 2001 after a stint as Hawaii’s US attorney, Steven Alm was immediately struck by the way in which his state punished probation violators. Probation officers would let slide the first ten to fifteen violations—such as failing a drug test—before recommending that a person be sent to prison. Those running the system were frustrated that most breaches went unpunished. Reasonably enough, offenders saw the system as arbitrary. When a breach landed them behind bars, they blamed the probation officer, the judge and an unfair system.
Looking at the ad hoc enforcement of probation violations, Alm thought about how we treat children. When the rules are clear and promptly enforced, kids are less likely to be naughty than when the rules are arbitrary and unpredictable. ‘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’.
In the case of parolees [sic], Alm devised a system known as Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or HOPE. When offenders fail a drug test or miss a probation appointment, a judicial hearing is held as soon as possible—typically within seventy-two hours. If the judge is satisfied that there has been a breach, the parolee is immediately jailed for a few days. The approach aims to be swift, certain and proportionate. As Alm puts it, it’s ‘Parenting 101’.
Buoyed by promising results, an external team devised a randomised evaluation. The study found that those who were assigned to the HOPE program were less likely to miss probation appointments, spent half as much time in jail, and were half as likely to commit a crime in the following year.
Conversations with the parolees also revealed an intriguing aspect of the program: offenders preferred it. An overwhelming majority felt that it helped them stay off drugs and improved their family relationships. Many saw the court system as an ally in rehabilitation, rather than the enemy. In the early days of the program, a researcher spoke to a man who was serving a short jail spell for failing a drug test. The probationer told the interviewer: ‘Judge Alm, he’s tough, but he’s fair. You know where you stand’. Programs based on the HOPE model are now operating in more than thirty US states.
Fairness is at the heart of the HOPE program, but the irony is that its randomised evaluation was arbitrary. Like every randomised experiment, assignment to the treatment or control groups was purely based on chance. Like the Australian Drug Court trial, participants were given no choice about whether they would be part of the study. The principle of equal justice requires that the same offence receives the same punishment. Yet once they were in the experiment, otherwise identical offenders were randomly assigned to different punishments.
Is this ethical? I believe so. While those designing new criminal justice programs anticipate they will produce better outcomes, they do not know for sure that being in the treatment group is better than being in the control group. In fact, while the treatment group did better in the HOPE and Drug Court experiments, the control group did better in the Scared Straight and Neighbourhood Watch experiments.