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"Swift and Certain" Sanctions in Probation Are Highly Effective: Evaluation of the HOPE Program

Date Published
February 2, 2012


NIJ has published the results of the multisite evaluation of HOPE. Learn more in the article Rigorous Multi-Site Evaluation Finds HOPE Probation Model Offers No Advantage Over Conventional Probation in Four Study Sites.

Based on the multisite evaluation,  Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) has been rated "No Effects" on NIJ's CrimeSolutions.

The HOPE program — Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement — is an experimental probation program that emphasizes the delivery of "swift and certain" punishment when a probationer violates conditions of probation.

Read about:

Positive Effects of Swift and Certain Sanctions

NIJ-funded researchers evaluated HOPE to determine if it worked and results were positive. Compared to probationers in a control group, after one year the HOPE probationers were:

  • Fifty-five percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime.
  • Seventy-two percent less likely to use drugs.
  • Sixty-one percent less likely to skip appointments with their supervisory officer.
  • Fifty-three percent less likely to have their probation revoked.

As a result, HOPE probationers served or were sentenced to 48 percent fewer days, on average, than the control group.

These results were generated using a randomized controlled trial. Researchers used a risk assessment tool to select 493 men and women who had an elevated risk of violating the terms of their probation through drug use, missed appointments or reoffending. Two-thirds of these were randomly assigned to be HOPE probationers and the remainder (the control group) were placed on probation as usual.

The researchers then compared how the two groups were doing at three months, six months, and 12 months.

Read the full evaluation, Managing Drug Involved Probationers with Swift and Certain Sanctions: Evaluating Hawaii's HOPE (pdf, 67 pages).

How HOPE Works

HOPE starts with a formal warning, delivered by a judge in open court, that any violation of probation will result in an immediate, brief jail stay.

Before HOPE, probationers in Hawaii typically received notice of drug tests as much as a month ahead of time. Under HOPE, probationers are given a color code at the warning hearing. Every morning, they must call a hot line to hear which color has been selected for that day. If it is their color, they must appear at the probation office before 2 p.m. for a drug test. [1]

If a HOPE probationer fails to appear for the drug test, a bench warrant is issued and served immediately. A probationer who fails the random drug test is immediately arrested and within 72 hours is brought before a judge. If the probationer is found to have violated the terms of probation, he or she is immediately sentenced to a short jail stay. Typically, the term is several days, servable on the weekend if the probationer is employed; sentences increase for successive violations.

HOPE differs from other programs by:

  • Focusing on reducing drug use and missed appointments rather than on drug treatment and imposing drug treatment on every participant.
  • Mandating drug treatment for probationers only if they continue to test positive for drug use, or if they request a treatment referral. A HOPE probationer who has a third or fourth missed or "dirty" drug test may be mandated into residential treatment as an alternative to probation revocation.
  • Requiring probationers to appear before a judge only when a violation is detected — in this respect, HOPE requires less treatment and court resources than drug courts.
  • Having probationers who are employed serve any jail time, at least initially, on a weekend so they do not jeopardize their employment

Why HOPE Effectively Reduces Probation Violations

The HOPE program is strongly grounded in research that shows that crime generally is committed by people for whom deferred and low-probability threats of severe punishment are less effective than immediate and high-probability threats of mild punishment. [2]

"Swift and certain" punishment for violating terms of probation sends a consistent message to probationers about personal responsibility and accountability. Research has shown that a swift response to an infraction improves the perception that the sanction is fair and that the immediacy is a vital tool in shaping behavior. [3]

Although the central idea of HOPE is common sense — certainty and swiftness work better than severity — the challenge was how to turn that idea into a reality in the face of scarce resources.

Because only a small fraction of HOPE probationers receive mandated treatment, the program can afford to use intensive long-term residential treatment, rather than relying primarily on outpatient drug-free counseling as most diversion programs and drug courts do.

The researchers call this flexible and targeted approach to drug treatment "behavioral triage." They found that HOPE's behavioral triage has several advantages over an assess-and-treat model:

  • It is more cost-efficient because it covers a large number of clients while delivering intensive treatment to those who prove to need it.
  • It puts a smaller strain on treatment capacity by avoiding the situation in which clients for whom treatment is mandated crowd out clients who voluntarily seek treatment.
  • Because the treatment mandate follows repeated failures, it helps break through denial; an individual who has spent three brief spells in jail for dirty drug tests may find it hard to keep telling himself that he is in control of his drug-use.

If treatment is mandated, a HOPE probationer must abstain from drug use (not merely comply with an order to appear for treatment) to avoid a prison term; this, the researchers found, positions the treatment provider as the probationer's ally in the effort to stay in out of jail.

The Impact of HOPE on Courts and Officers of the Courts — Process Evaluation

In addition to evaluating the effectiveness of HOPE in reducing violations, the researchers also performed a process evaluation. As part of that evaluation, they looked at HOPE's impact on the workloads of probation officers, judges, prosecutors, public defenders and court staff.

The researchers also surveyed general perceptions of HOPE among the probation officers, judges, prosecutors, public defenders and court staff.

Overall, probation officers, probationers and defense lawyers were enthusiastic about the program. Probation officers had the most favorable view of the program, with nearly 90 percent expressing support for HOPE, followed by judges at 85 percent. Court employees had the most negative general perceptions of HOPE (50 percent); the researchers surmised that this could be due to increased workloads without the countervailing benefit of directly observing improvements in probationer behavior.

Initially, judges gave varying "doses" (the lengths of jail sentences ordered for probation violations), which caused some discontent among probation officers and probationers. But the variation in sentences decreased after the judges learned that research showed no correlation between the length of the jail term and subsequent violation rates.

Additional Research Needed

Although the HOPE project holds promise, a number of questions can be answered only with more carefully controlled research. Such questions include:

  • Are the relatively short-term outcomes revealed in the NIJ evaluation — how well the probationers were doing at the one-year mark — sustained for a longer period of time, especially after probationers are released from supervision? NIJ funded a follow-up study that will examine the impact of HOPE among probationers five years after their participation in the program (2004-2006). NIJ expects findings from this study in late 2012. 
  • Is this approach to offender compliance a cost-effective use of limited resources?
  • Which components of the HOPE program are most important; for example, did the drug screening or the punishment schedule — or the interaction of the two — produce the compelling results?
  • What types of people respond best to the HOPE program?

To address some of these questions, BJA and NIJ have partnered to replicate and evaluate the Hawaii HOPE model in four jurisdictions that vary widely in population, density and geographic location — Clackamas County, Ore.; Essex County, Mass.; Saline County, Ark.; and Tarrant County, Tex. The Research Triangle Institute and its partner the Pennsylvania State University will conduct the evaluation to determine the impact of HOPE in reducing probationer re-offending and identify the likely challenges and costs a jurisdiction should expect when implementing the program. Results should be available in 2015.

Date Published: February 2, 2012