Swift and Certain Beats Severe

I'm currently working on a story for Governing's November issue about an innovative approach to enforcing probation being pioneered by a judge in ...
by | September 1, 2009
 

I'm currently working on a story for Governing's November issue about an innovative approach to enforcing probation being pioneered by a judge in Hawaii, former U.S. Attorney Steve Alm. It's a remarkable story of public entrepreneurship, and, while I'm just beginning my reporting, it appears that Judge Alm has already achieved some impressive results. I'll have a lot more to say about the program in the feature, but in this post I'd like to talk about some of the ideas that undergird Judge Alm's program.

Judge Alm started looking for a new approach to probation on his own, soon after taking a position on the bench. But the idea behind his HOPE program is rooted in the work done by a UCLA criminologist, Mark Kleiman. Next week, Princeton University Press is publishing Kleiman's important new book, "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment".

Kleiman's book is strikingly unconventional. He asks us to put aside thoughts of vengeance, and instead ask "what set of actions would result in the least total harm and cost, from crime and crime-control efforts combined?"

In place of the current high severity "lock-em-up and throw away the key approach," he advocates "swift and certain" but less severe punishment. Judge Alm's approach in Hawaii illustrates the idea perfectly: People on probation in the HOPE program are warned that violations of probation will result in swift and certain punishment. They are subjected to frequent randomized drug testing. If they fail or skip an appointment, they are quickly apprehended and remanded to jail - but only for a few days. The result has been a dramatic improvement in compliance.

More surprisingly, it hasn't been hard to enforce. Once probationers accept that the threat of apprehension is real and punishment certain, most - even substance abusers - stop violating. In this dynamic, Kleiman sees a new approach to law enforcement:

"Start somewhere: with a geographic region, a set of offenses, or a set of offenders. Borrow existing capacity form other areas, offenses, or offenders to concentrate on the chose target. Once offenders have gotten the message... and reduced their level of activity accordingly - once that original target has been 'tipped' from high offending to low offending - that temporary increase in enforcement directed at that sector can be relaxed with letting the target 'tip' back. That frees up those extra resources for a new target, which tips in turn. Continue until the cost of enforcement activity required to maintain good behavior where it has been achieved exhaust the available resources. Only at that point will it be true that achieving more compliance will require inflicting more punishment."

It's a powerful and provocative idea, and in the rest of the book, Kleiman explores it with subtlety. Full confession: I've been a friendly acquaintance for years, and Mark has long urged me to look to Hawaii to see this dynamic in action. Based on what I've learned so far, his claim that Hawaii illustrates how a virtuous feedback cycle can emerge is dead on. For more details, look for my story in the magazine or online in two months time.

Story Behind the Story is a behind-the-scenes look at upcoming features in Governing. Check it out every Tuesday on the 13th Floor.

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