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NY Times: 'Prisoners of Parole'

8th February 2010

Original story appears in The New York Times, by Jeffrey Rosen, 8th February 2010

Steven Alm despaired of the number of drug-related probation violations he was dealing with in his Hawaii courtroom; successive violations were ignored by probation officers, instilling a false sense of security in probationers, until authorities finally reacted with unexpected recommendations that probationers be sent to prison.

Alm appreciated that such a system could never seek to modify behaviour and proposed the introduction of a new procedure whereby those in violation of probation would be arrested immediately, appearing before a court within 72 hours and being sentenced to imprisonment for a number of days as a penalty.

The results? Even the new warnings issued, that for the first time probation rules would be strictly enforced, seemed to have a discernable impact as the number of probation violations dropped drastically. Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) had been successful. 

Classical deterrence theory asserts that people respond better to the certain threat of a mild but immediate punishment, rather than the vague possibility of a harsh punishment at some future point. The issue of legitimacy is also key - we respond more favourably to an authority we perceive as fair and reasonable - a transparent system of consequences was more likely to be perceived as fair.

The HOPE initiative is not alone in the US, recent budgetary restrictions and a growing realisation that penal expansion may not be the answer are leading the US towards the consideration of alternatives to custody and a new way of approaching the issue of crime.

Other innovative programmes, such as David M. Kennedy's Operation Ceasefire in Boston, are also seeking to use evidence-based policies in a bid to produce better results. Kennedy's thinking on deterrence and legitimacy inspired not only Alms, but has proven effective in the reduction of youth crime in Boston. Kennedy realised that group legitimacy, whereby an entire group of people viewed the authorities as fair, was crucial when dealing with criminal gangs. Gangs were informed that the group as a whole would suffer the consequences for the actions of its individual members while incentives in the form of training and support were offered for those who wished to change their lives.

IPRT's Liam Herrick, in his most recent Director's Blog 'Fresh Thinking and Common Sense' echoes the message of these pioneering projects:

“The point of all this: a criminal justice system is about human behaviour and trying to change it. Reform of that system must be based on the best evidence of what individuals respond to, and it is practical issues such as court efficiency or bail supervision that promise better results than a forlorn hope that tougher sentence will have any beneficial effects.”

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