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HOPE and SCF Probation Programs Criticized in Study

Although incarceration levels in the U.S. have receded slightly this decade – to around 2.2 million people in 2016, according to the Prison Policy Initiative – the number of offenders on some form of probation or community supervision has increased. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 4.65 million people were on probation or parole at the end of 2015, the most recent data available.

As a result, state correctional systems are exploring new ways to reduce the costs of supervision while maintaining public safety. However, programs known as “Honest Opportunity Probation and Enforcement” (HOPE), coupled with “Swift, Certain, and Fair” (SCF) sanctions for those who violate the conditions of their supervised release, may not produce sufficient cost savings to justify the increased risk posed by releasing offenders back into the community before completing their sentences.

That was the conclusion of a field study authorized by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance and conducted by the non-profit Criminology and Public Policy organization with the assistance of the Justice Policy Institute.

The study, titled “Outcome Findings from the HOPE Demonstration Field Experiment,” covered research based on elements of HOPE and SCF programs involving more than 1,500 probationers at four sites: Benton, Arkansas; Salem, Massachusetts; Oregon City, Oregon and Ft. Worth, Texas.

The study’s authors – Pam Lattimore and colleagues at the Research Triangle Institute – based the focus of their research on a HOPE program established in Hawaii in 2004, which emphasizes “close monitoring, frequent random drug testing, and SCF sanctioning.” Violators receive a graduated series of sanctions, which might include drug treatment or short periods of incarceration, to enforce compliance without the expenses of jail stays after a series of smaller violations culminating in a “last straw” revocation.

The program is based on the theory that offenders will engage in a risk-reward “rational choice” process before they commit offenses, and reflects new research that favors “certainty-based as opposed to severity-based sanctions policies” – in other words, it is not the severity of a sentence that most deters someone from committing a crime, but rather the certainty that punishment will be imposed.

Offenders on probation or community supervision who fail to keep an appointment with a probation officer or fail a drug test are brought before a judge, who explains their options and encourages them to comply with conditions of release. These “warning hearings” are then followed by closer supervision, increased drug testing or some other non-incarceration-based sanction. As offenders come into compliance, probation appointments and drug treatment or testing are scaled back as a reward for positive behavior.

The conclusion drawn from the four test sites, however, was that both HOPE and SCF programs, although appealing to many decision-makers and members of the public, have had mixed results and do not significantly reduce costs. Only one of the four sites reported positive results while the other three experienced either no drop in supervised release revocations or a slight increase.

Reporting their findings in the December 2016 issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy, Lattimore and her colleagues concluded the HOPE and SCF programs seem “unlikely to offer better outcomes and lower costs for broad classes of moderate-to-high-risk probationers.”

But in Honolulu, where the HOPE program originated, chief prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said its effectiveness was being undermined by placing the wrong sorts of offenders in it. According to his office, 686 of the 2,021 probationers in the program in 2015 – or more than a third – were violent or sex offenders that he said shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

“Sex offenders, kidnapping, assault on police officers, terroristic threatening, domestic violence defendants – these should be incarcerated and not placed [in the] HOPE Probation” program, he contended.

Other reports published in the same journal as the Lattimore field study were critical of its findings. They noted that not only has the original Hawaii program been considered largely a success, but so have the 24/7 Sobriety program in South Dakota, Swift and Certain in Washington State and SWIFT in Texas.

The design of Lattimore’s study was faulted for an excessively long list of 60 supervision rules that could trigger sanctions if violated. Moreover, the study’s exclusive use of 10-day jail sanctions was bound to reduce the cost savings achieved in other programs, which make extensive use of non-incarceration sanctions and rewards while limiting jail stays to periods as short as two days. 



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