In a four-site (Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas), randomized controlled trial study of the HOPE program design, researchers from Research Triangle International (RTI) and Pennsylvania State University, supported by the National Institute of Justice, found that HOPE-modeled probation was generally not an improvement over traditional probation in terms of key success metrics such as new arrests, revocation of parole, and new convictions. The study team stressed, however, that the results do not rule out circumstances where HOPE-based probation or a similar model would be preferable to probation as usual.
The heart of HOPE, modelled on a widely emulated Hawaii probation system reform – Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement – is "swift, certain and fair" sanctioning meant to keep offenders on probation in line, drug-free, and out of prison. Offenders are closely monitored with regular random drug testing and are subject to frequent but graduated sanctions for violations. A single, relatively minor probation violation – for example, a positive drug test or a missed appointment – might warrant a brief incarceration of a few days, but with the offender's probation status restored after the release from jail. Drug treatment is available for those in need.
HOPE was devised as an improvement over conventional probation processes, which in many jurisdictions can be characterized by procedural uncertainty and uneven justice, lengthy delays in response to violations, and in many cases harsh punishment in the form of a lengthy jail sentence after a single, final parole violation, the researchers noted. In general, the sites implemented the HOPE model with high fidelity.
The researchers team evaluated the HOPE model through demonstration field experiments implemented in counties in Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas. The study divided a total of 1,504 HOPE-eligible individuals into HOPE treatment and control – i.e., probation as usual – groups and measured outcome differences.
The researchers reported that HOPE probationers proportionately committed significantly more violations than members of the control group (89 percent versus 82 percent), and that the actual number of violations was higher for the HOPE group as well (3,770 versus 3,134), although that difference may reflect the fact that the HOPE program held probationers closely accountable through measures including intensive random drug testing.
The researchers did find some comparative positives for the HOPE probationers. For instance, they were significantly less likely than control group counterparts to:
- Miss a probation officer visit (30 percent versus 44 percent).
- Fail to pay their fees and fines (11 percent versus 18 percent).
At the same time, however, researchers found no difference between the recidivism numbers of the HOPE treatment groups and probation as usual control groups, as follows:
- Re-arrest: 40 percent for HOPE, 44 percent for probation as usual.
- Revocation of Probation: 25 percent for HOPE, 22 percent for probation as usual.
- Reconviction: 28 percent for HOPE, 26 percent for probation as usual.
"Overall, HOPE did not reduce recidivism," the researchers said, "as measured by arrest, revocation, and new conviction."
The researchers made clear that, on balance, the randomized controlled trial established that the evaluated HOPE demonstration programs were not superior to probation as usual, in terms of outcomes or savings, notwithstanding program expectations: "HOPE probation has been widely promoted and adapted as a means for substantially improving probation outcomes while generating cost savings. The findings of this rigorous, four-site randomized controlled trial suggest otherwise."
The RTI and Penn State team cautioned against construing the trial outcome as a conclusive rebuke of all HOPE and similarly structured programs. The researchers emphasized that the study results "do not say do not implement HOPE or similar programs based on 'swift, certain, and fair' principles. The results do suggest that sites considering implementing such programs should give great consideration to the implications of HOPE programs within the context of their current probation policy and practice – PAU [probation as usual] context is important."
The team noted that the study's no-advantage findings for the HOPE treatment group stand in contrast to the expectations of those agencies implementing HOPE probation. "Evaluation team interviews with HOPE stakeholders revealed that, overall, there was strong buy-in to the HOPE concept. Those implementing the program believed in the model and were optimistic that HOPE would be successful."
Part of the initial appeal of the HOPE model for corrections authorities and policymakers was the model's perceived promise of more rational, even, and equitable outcomes across probation populations. That promise was to be fulfilled by frequent hearings; proportional, swift punishment when violations occurred without loss of probation status; offender treatment when warranted; and an alternative to harsh sentences for a single violation, according to Eric D. Martin, an NIJ social scientist and an agency manager of the NIJ-supported study. A previous, single-site NIJ-supported evaluation had found the Hawaii program to be effective in certain respects.
Other relative positives of HOPE programs evaluated in the newer multi-site study included increased compliance with some supervision conditions and positive drug use effects as measured six and 12 months after enrollment. Notably, HOPE probationers told interviewers they believed HOPE helped them better manage their lives.
The original HOPE program in Hawaii was a precursor to dozens of similar programs nationally. One study noted that as of 2015, 28 HOPE or comparable "Swift, Certain, Fair" probation programs had started in 28 states, one Indian nation, and one Canadian province.+
About This Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2011-RY-BX-0003, awarded to RTI International and Pennsylvania State University. This article is based on the grantee final report "Evaluation of the Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement Demonstration Field Experiment (HOPE DFE)" (pdf, 268 pages).
The report contributors are Pamela K. Lattimore (PI), Doris L. MacKenzie (PI), Debbie Dawes, Gary Zajac, Elaine Arsenault, Alan Barnosky, Susan Brumbaugh, Joel Cartwright, Alexander Cowell, Derek Ramirez, and Stephen Tueller.