Opinion: Getting Tough on Drug Crimes

When I was a kid, my mom would often ask me to clean my room. Most of the time, I agreed without too much  fuss. But on days when I was playing The Legend of Zelda or busy shooting hoops with friends, she would use modest and credible threats to get me to act – and they almost always worked. “Kevin,” she would say, “If you don’t clean up your room right now, you can’t have friends over tonight and you can forget about going to that movie you wanted to see tomorrow. So get to work!” That got me every time. The godfather of public policy, Thomas Schelling, used to say that the best threat is the one which is never carried out. And my mom was a pro at making that happen.

In my work with criminal populations, I have learned that criminals are a lot like kids: both groups have poor impulse control, a propensity to attribute their misfortunes in life to either bad luck or actions beyond their own control, and a tendency to value immediate gratification even if delaying gratification would result in a bigger payoff. So for both kids and crooks, psychologists and criminologists have long known that credible threats – usually swift, certain, but modest sanctions that are imposed very soon after the time of offense – are much more effective at changing behavior than, say, severe threats to be carried out in the distant future (or not carried out at all). Therefore it comes as no surprise that the largest segment of our criminal justice system – those in the community on probation or parole – often do not heed severe threats issued by the bench. Instead, they go on re-offending at the cost of billions of dollars to society. They are expected to change their behavior after hearing this from the equivalent of mom: “If you don’t clean up your room right now, there is a 45 percent chance that in nineteen and half months you will be grounded for three whole years!”  It is these kinds of threats that have resulted in today’s broken probation system.

With HOPE, missed parole appointments and positive drug tests fell by over 80%. Jail stays decreased, and real dollars were saved. The traditional probation group—surprise—found no improvement in drug use.

That is why a once obscure program in Hawaii, aptly titled HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement), has received a lot of notice lately. Tired of seeing the same offenders relapsing in his Hawaiian circuit court, Judge Steve Alm decided that he was going to start getting smart about sanctioning his probationers. Applying what we know about deterrence, he started issuing swift, certain, and modest sanctions every timeone of his probationers re-appeared before him. Beginning with a formal warning hearing, Judge Alm openly explained to his probationers that continued violations would not be tolerated and that each violation would result in an immediate jail stay. To track their behavior, offenders were assigned a color and had to call in every morning to see if their color was mentioned by the automated system. If it was, they had to report at once for a drug test; no-shows were treated as positives and a warrant was immediately issued. Re-offenders appeared before Judge Alm within 1-2 days and were offered treatment first. If they refused, they immediately spent the next two days (not years or decades) in jail (weekends for employed probationers). After they served their time, they continued in the program, with sanctions slowly escalating (repeat offenders were referred to a drug court or other treatment option). Skeptics worried that without mandating treatment for all probationers at the start, many would re-offend and take up drugs again. Others were concerned that the jail population would skyrocket—now that, you know, the law was actually being carried out.

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