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Probation Supervision Program Set for Trial Run

A program started in Hawaii that closely oversees criminal offenders' probation periods is starting a test run in Texas. The experiment, which is getting federal funds, will help determine how the program translates to the mainland.

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A Hawaiian court program known as Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or HOPE, which strictly enforces criminal offenders' probation periods, has officially arrived in Texas for a test run.

The state’s first HOPE “warning hearing,” in which the judge encourages initial participants to succeed and informs them of the probation rules and consequences for misbehavior, is set to occur Friday in Tarrant County. The introduction marks the start of an experiment funded in part with a $728,364 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to determine how the Hawaiian HOPE model would translate in the mainland. The DOJ is also funding teams in three other American cities to test the program.

“This research project is to either prove or disprove that it can be replicated with the same results,” said Judge Mollee Westfall, whose Tarrant County court will pilot the project in Texas. In Hawaii, the HOPE court has already been shown to significantly lower both the drug use among participants and the probability that they will reoffend. The research in Texas is expected to last three years: Participants will begin the program over the next year, spend roughly a year in it and will be tracked by researchers for a year after leaving it.

The Tarrant County HOPE court will focus on felony offenders who have committed low-level drug offenses or property crimes and are at high risk for violating terms of their probation. The model, which resembles other probation programs that already exist in Texas, holds the potential to work with an increasing number of specialty courts in the state.

The HOPE court can be considered “probation on steroids,” said Hawaii Judge Steven Alm, who led the design of the program. It applies “swift and certain” methods of punishment. Rather than receive delayed punishment for probation violations, as Alm said often occurs, those in the program are immediately informed of the consequences for their missteps. This punishment, such as a stint in jail, is determined in part based on how the offender reacts to such errors and what errors have been previously made. The program also includes random drug testing and can facilitate drug treatment if needed.

“People understand what to expect, they understand why they’re being sanctioned,” Westfall said. “It’s so simple and it’s consistent with what you already know as a human being.”

A familiar approach

The HOPE method is not entirely new to Texas.

As Hawaii was starting its program in 2004, Leighton Iles, the director of the Community Supervision and Corrections Department for Fort Bend County, was planning for the launch of the Special Sanctions Court Program, a similar probation model. He did not learn of the Hawaiian program until 2008.

“It was an offshoot of a specialty court model, really,” Iles said of the inspiration for his Sanctions court design, which continues today in efforts to keep county recidivism rates as low as possible.

Specialty courts follow 10 key components, as first seen in drug courts that provide offenders with intensive, highly monitored drug therapy programs rather than send them to jail. 

After the first drug court was established in Florida in 1989, two drug courts emerged in Texas by 1993. Critics slammed the “hug-a-thug” model, saying such specialty courts were too soft on crime. But supporters argued the courts could help reduce or eliminate the state's need to build more prisons by keeping offenders immediately out of jail and reducing recidivism rates in the long term. Legislators took hold of the idea in 2001, requiring counties with a population of more than 550,000 to establish a drug court.

“It’s a win-win deal. It enhances public safety and it saves money,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the state Senate criminal justice committee. “Nobody can refute that they work.”

Like specialty courts, the Sanctions court and the HOPE court apply the same emphasis on tight judicial supervision of participants at high risk of reoffending, but they place less emphasis on drug therapy and treatment.

Iles estimated the HOPE and Sanctions courts to be mostly the same.

“We’ve just adapted it to what our legal system will do,” Iles said of what he called the “insignificant” differences between the two. The results appear to be similar: According to a 2007 evaluation of the Sanctions court program, participants were “significantly less likely” to violate probation conditions and half as likely to have new convictions. Iles calls the upcoming HOPE study the "gold standard" of research in the field and expects it will help inform all forms of the court as to what may need to be improved.

Iles, now the CSCD director in Tarrant County, also helped Westfall last year to start what she calls the SWIFT court using similar principles.

High risk, low need

One hundred and twenty six actively operating specialty courts have been registered with the governor’s office. As the number of such courts continues to increase in the state, judges and legislators have emphasized a need to monitor them more closely. A specialty courts advisory council was created this year to review courts that apply for funding from the governor's office, and the criminal justice advisory council reinstated this year is helping to define best practices for the specialty courts in the state.

The HOPE court, and its equivalents in the state like the Sanctions program, are not considered specialty courts but hold potential to work closely with these programs.

“It’s basically a complement to the drug court model,” said District Judge Ruben Reyes of Lubbock, who serves on the board for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and chairs the criminal justice advisory council. “To me, that’s another court on the horizon that’s developing.”

Doug Marlowe, an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the chief of science law and policy for the NADCP also categorized the two models as “complementary” because both closely monitor drug offenders.

The challenge may not lie in determining which of the two is better but determining who belongs in which. Marlowe said criminals should be assessed based on risk and need before being placed in certain programs. Risk reflects the difficulty of controlling an offender’s behavior, while need reflects the amount of treatment an offender may require.

High-risk, high-need offenders will be best served in a drug court, Marlowe said, while he expects the research on the HOPE model that is just beginning will reveal it should target high-risk but lower-need offenders.

The HOPE system, which requires less time and fewer resources from judges, will be able to process many more cases than a drug court. Some offenders will only interact with the judge for an initial warning hearing; they must return for another hearing only if they break the rules. 

In his county, Alm spends four days a week focusing on the HOPE program, and one in his drug court. Following a triage model, those who fail in HOPE with drug-related issues may then sent to the drug court before, finally, being sentenced to time in prison.

“Many people can stop using drugs without going into drug treatment,” Alm said.

Angela Hawken, an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University who has been involved with research of the HOPE model, said she hopes the DOJ-funded study will help identify what aspects of the model work best under what conditions, rather than create a cookie-cutter court to be applied everywhere.

"We need to not be concerned with the processes of Hawaii so much as the principles of Hawaii," Hawken said. "If this is going to be a model that operates nationwide, we have to be open to some variations."

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