June 13, 2013

Another Take On Punishment and Rehabilitation

Two words I would not associate with the criminal justice system are “swift” and “certain.”

Take a conversation I had with a client a couple of weeks ago. I was explaining the prospects for his case on appeal, digging into the procedure of the Fourth Circuit and how the whole thing worked. At the end, I had to tell him that, even if we won on appeal (it’s a nice issue, but you never know, right?) that would be about a year after he was sentenced. Patience isn’t just a virtue for those in the criminal justice system, it’s an essential.

Thing is, the system works the same way regardless of how you’re swept into it. A murder case may be more factually complex than a probation revocation, but the broad strokes are the same – you get charged for doing something wrong, you go to court to argue about it, and some sentence is imposed if you’re guilty. It may take months, if not years, to reach the end point, but which time who can remember what the hell you did to make it here in the first place?

One judge in Hawaii came up with what might be a better way, at least when it comes to probation/parole/supervised release violators. Judge Alm (a former US Attorney) came onto the bench in 2001 and immediately found the current system for such folks problematic and not very effective. So he switched things around:
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.
So simple, but it appears to be working:
Participants in HOPE were 55 percent less likely than members of a control group to be arrested for a new crime, 72 percent less likely to use drugs, and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked. As a result, they served 48 percent fewer days of incarceration.
As a result, HOPE-like programs have appeared in over a dozen states.

Of course, a program like that can really only happen in a supervisory context, where probationers are required to follow lots of rules that don’t apply to regular folks. It’s not clear to me how you could apply the swift/certain punishment idea in new criminal cases without running into serious due process issues.

One interesting observation of those in the HOPE program involves their perception of the process:
’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.’
Now, in my experience the old saw that everybody who is in prison thinks their innocent isn’t the case. People are a lot more honest about their transgressions than that. However, what I have noticed is that there is a certain percentage of defendants who lose sight of any culpability on their part in their plight and view the entire predicament as a kind of game to be won or lost without any regard to their behavior. That’s particularly true when the only real “defense” someone has is a motion to suppress evidence that, otherwise, shows them to be dead-bang guilty. My own personal theory is that it doesn’t help those clients down the road to get caught up in the “game” and lose sight of what they did and how things need to work when they get out of prison.

HOPE offers a different take on criminal justice. It appears to be one of the truly unusual examples of a true win/win situation. The probationers do better overall and spend less time going back to jail. The public benefits by a reduction in crime, reduced cost (due to shorter incarceration), and a more efficient criminal justice system. Let’s hope (so to speak) it continues to spread.

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