Addressing the Shortcomings of Probation and Parole

Swift and Sure sanctions probation program a success

In 2004, a Hawaiian circuit court judge named Steven Alm launched a new program to ensure that his court dealt fairly and promptly with people on probation. Judge Alm found a simple solution to the shortcomings of the probation program.

The problem was that the consequences for probation violations were ineffective. A probation violation drew only warnings, no actual discipline. And probation violations began piling up. Eventually frustrated probation agents, with left with no alternatives, sent probationers to court, where they would receive a disproportionately severe punishment. “What a crazy way to try to change anybody’s behavior,” said Judge Alm.

So he started a program called Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or HOPE. The system is simple: probationers who violate the rules are immediately disciplined (within 72 hours) — every time. If a probationer accepts responsibility for the violation instead of running away or lying about it, his consequences are less severe.

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This formula seems to have worked: A 2009 evaluation of the program showed that HOPE probationers were half as likely to be arrested for new crimes or to have their probation revoked and were nearly 75 percent less likely to use illicit drugs. News of HOPE’s successful use of “swift and sure sanctioning” spread and similar programs began cropping up all over the country.

Michigan began testing its own version of HOPE in 2011, when the Department of Corrections and the State Court Administrative Office received funding for a pilot program. They implemented the Swift and Sure Sanctions Probation Program in Barry, Berrien, Isabella and Wayne counties, and, two years later, the Legislature passed the Probation Swift and Sure Sanctions Act, which provides funding to local governments that opt to implement the program.

An evaluation of the SSSPP participants in 2012 and 2013 revealed that they were 36 percent less likely to reoffend than participants in conventional probation programs and that these outcomes led to safer communities and lower corrections costs. Eighteen counties in Michigan are currently operating the SSSPP.

Current proposed legislation would create a similar program for parolees. The Michigan Senate recently passed Senate Bill 932, which would establish the Parole Sanction Certainty Act, an attempt to reduce recidivism and parole violations by using clear and evidence-based sanctions for parole violators. It relies on many of Judge Alm’s insights for connecting behavior with consequences in order to help parolees become more accountable and responsible. The House should give this legislation serious consideration as it appears to hold promise for improving how Michigan handles parolees.

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