Lawmakers weigh major changes for parole, probation
When veteran Department of Corrections field administrator Donta Harper was told last year about the experiment he was going to help oversee, he had misgivings.
Thirty-five Seattle parolees, he was told, would be put under a new kind of supervision. Every time they failed a drug test or blew off a meeting with a corrections officer, they’d quickly be scooped up and put in jail. After no more than three days, they’d be released. More serious offenses would result in up to 30 days in jail.
Another 35 ex-cons would make up the control group. Their oversight would be representative of how the system currently operates: less consistently, with offenses resulting in anything from a verbal reprimand to 60 days behind bars.
After six months, the parolees subject to the experimental “swift and certain” system of punishment, as proponents call it, showed dramatically lower rates of drug use. They also were less likely to be sent back to prison.
“I went into it with some skepticism. How could something so simple work?” said Harper. “But it worked.”
This pilot project now helps form the template for a proposed statewide remaking of probation and parole – collectively known as community custody – that would put Washington at the forefront of a nationwide push to change how they function.
The bill encompassing this change is not assured passage during the state Legislature’s current special session. But in large part because it promises significant efficiencies – Senate Republicans have penciled in $15 million in annual savings tied to the measure as part of their most recent budget proposal – it stands a good chance of making it into law.
“The issue from my perspective is not primarily the cost savings,” said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, the bill’s prime sponsor. “We’ve got research that shows swift and sure punishment and adding treatment is going to reduce recidivism and is going to keep the public safer.”
Opposition to the measure comes from House Republicans, who dislike that hardened ex-convicts will face reduced penalties for violating the terms of their parole. They have sought to exclude murderers, sex criminals and others guilty of serious crimes from the program.
“To put them under relaxed supervision has an impact under public safety,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Thurston County. “They could reoffend, and that would be very devastating.”
The system is modeled on a program founded eight years ago in Hawaii, where Judge Steven Alm, a former prosecutor, grew frustrated upon seeing defendants show up for the first time in his courtroom only after repeatedly violating the terms of their probation.
Why hadn’t they been brought before him earlier? Alm demanded of the probation officers. When told that each violation forced officers to choose between inaction and having someone jailed for weeks or months at a time, Alm decided to forge a new path: short jail terms meted out for every minor probation violation.
Within three months, participants in Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement program – HOPE for short – showed an 80 percent drop in positive drug tests. The recidivism rate among those on probation also dropped precipitously.
“When you don’t have any consequence for failure, you’re going to get more failure,” said Alm. “With HOPE, it’s swift, certain and proportionate.”
The program was replicated first in Alaska, then in Arizona and is now used in more than a dozen states. The federal Department of Justice will soon start pilot projects in four cities across the country.
Angela Hawken, associate professor of economics and policy analysis at Pepperdine University, studied Alm’s program in Hawaii and oversees the Seattle pilot project.
She said that the system is generally supported by both prosecutors, who like the immediacy and consistency of the punishments, and by public defenders, who appreciate the short jail terms.
Key to the program’s success, she said, is the reality that even ex-cons with long histories of drug abuse can be conditioned to change their behavior when faced with a heightened threat of jail time. The minority that test positive for drugs despite knowing that they will be punished with jail, she added, have identified themselves as prime candidates for treatment.