Hope and Redemption

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BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – An innovative probation program in Hawaii is quickly becoming a model for judicial reform across the nation.

Founded by Hawaii Circuit Court Judge Steve Alm in 2004, the program called HOPE has helped nearly 2,000 so called “clients” with alcohol and drug addictions in the judicial system with convictions for everything from car theft to sexual assault to violent crimes.


Embraced by conservatives and liberals – touted as successful by law enforcement and defense attorneys and even those on probation – Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or HOPE, is being studied by legislatures and judiciaries across the country, Congress and researchers based at Pepperdine University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The program, which emphasizes closer monitoring of those on probation, frequent drug testing and personal responsibility and accountability, has already been adopted by at least 20 counties in states that include Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. Arizona actually took the program a step farther and is applying it to its juvenile population, not just the adult offenders, in a total of four counties.

Hawaii’s Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald says: “Judge Alm is a leader in the true sense of the word, by advocating for change in the way we supervise probationers and by following through to make that change a reality.”

In Hawaii, the program is saving taxpayers money, says Alm, estimating a $4,000 savings per person in the system. Locally, it costs $50,000 a year to house a prisoner at Halawa Correctional Facility. Hawaii’s prisons are so overcrowded and expensive to operate that Hawaii sent its prisoners to Arizona, costing $27,000 and $30,000 per prisoner there.

Recktenwald agrees: “HOPE has been proven remarkably successful in turning offenders’ lives around, which makes our community safer and reduces the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration.”

Judge Steve Alm

Alm starts each day optimistic about the car thieves, burglars, sex offenders and, in some cases, violent offenders with drug and alcohol addictions who will come before him to ask for a second chance.

There is Koaalii Kaopuiki, a Honolulu resident and father in his 30s, who is addicted to methamphetamine, also known as ice. But says he has not taken the drug for a year. Kaopuiki, dressed in more formal street clothes, nods as Alm tells him that if he blows his chance at redemption while on probation, that he will be choosing drugs over his 15-year-old daughter.

“You want to be a good role model for her and make sure she avoids problems. She has all the same temptations in the world, and if you are using ice, you have zero credibility with her,” Alm says.

Alm has 1,800 “clients” enrolled in HOPE – a program Alm founded in the fall of 2004. This is a good percentage of the 12,000 offenders on felony probation or deferral in the state and the 8,200 on Oahu.

Kaopuiki, accompanied by his family, pledges he will abide by the law. He gets a second chance with Alm by agreeing not use drugs again, not hanging out with addicts and showing up for  regular spontaneous drug testing tests. He also pledged not to run away while on probation or commit other crimes.

If he makes mistakes, he will turn himself in immediately. He understands that there are no excuses; that he is in charge of his decisions, his life, and must make the right choices or the consequences will be serious and swift and will probably involve jail time.

The extensive discussion that Alm has with each person who comes before him in court is just like Parenting 101 – behave or there will be immediate consequences. He says he got the idea in his first week on this court calendar in June 2004.

“I could tell that the current probation system was broken. Probation officers had caseloads of up to 180, and the dynamic was that offenders would repeatedly break the rules of supervision – by using drugs, skipping probation appointments and failing treatment – because there were no real consequences,” Alm said.

“After the offender racked up 20, 30 or more violations, the probation officer would feel they had a ‘good’ case for bringing a Motion for Revocation of Probation. The probation officer would spend hours working on the affidavit and motion, and a warrant for the offender’s arrest would be prepared, and he or she would eventually be arrested and typically 10 weeks later be brought into my court for a Motion to Revoke Probation,” the judge said.

“The probation officer would typically deem the offender ‘not amenable to probation’ and almost invariably recommend I sentence the offender to the underlying five, 10 or 20 years in prison,” Alm said. “I thought to myself, ‘this is a crazy way to operate. A crazy way to try to change anybody’s behavior.’”

He said he thought about his own son and what he did when his child misbehaved.

“I would repeat the rules and warn him that if it happened again, I would give him a specific consequence right away,” the judge said. “And he learned to connect the bad behavior with the consequence, and the bad behavior stopped.”

Alm applied good parenting skills to reorganizing the “creaky old probation system” into being “swift, certain and proportionate for each and every violation.”

A former deputy city prosecutor who rose to become Hawaii’s U.S. Attorney from 1994 to 2001 and then a state judge in 2001, he is nicknamed the “hanging judge.” Alm is considered one of – if not the toughest – judge in Hawaii in terms of sentencing. But he points out that he also doesn’t hesitate to show compassion when it comes to addicts who commit to the program and prove they are willing to change.

Alm has a fairly accurate “BS” detector as evidenced by his intense questioning of the more than a dozen people who came before him earlier this week, including one young mother who he sentenced to 10 years in prison for a repeat forgery offense, despite her tearful plea and promise to reform.

While to some cynics or veterans in law enforcement and the defense community at first believed the goal of the program – to keep people out of prison by empowering them to change and serving up swift consequences if they don’t – was too lofty, history proved them wrong.

Remarkably, statistics being compiled by the state attorney general’s office and university researchers in the mainland since the first day of his program show that if Bilonta and Kaopuiki succeed in kicking the habit, staying out of prison and keeping their record clean, they are in with the majority of their peers enrolled in the state’s 6-year-old “HOPE” program.

Angela Hawken, professor of economics and policy analysis at Pepperdine University and a research economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has studied the program for a number of years. She says she was skeptical coming into the study, and was pleasantly surprised by how transparent and open to suggestions Hawaii’s program administrators were.

Her 2008 research shows that probationers assigned to HOPE showed “an 85 percent reduction in missed appointments and a 91 percent reduction in positive urinalyses” – that compared to those on probation-as-usual that showed a 23 percent increase in missed appointments and no improvement on urinalyses. Other key outcomes from research show arrest rates for comparable probationers were three times higher than HOPE probationers, she says.

Click on graph to see more about results from HOPE

Hawken has shared her study results with Congress and the Hawaii Legislature, as well as other state legislatures and judiciaries.

There is another study she is working on this year related to hair testing that will determine whether HOPE has any long term impact in terms of keeping offenders from getting back into drugs and alcohol. Preliminary results are due out this spring.

HOPE has found success with different sectors of the judiciary including attorneys such as Jack Tonaki, the public defender for the state of Hawaii since 2000.

Tonaki was one of the first people Alm called to gain his trust, advocacy and support. Tonaki says that the program was highly controversial among his peers when it was first introduced, and he took “a good bit of heat from his colleagues for his involvement,” as did Alm.

“A lot of us (defense attorneys) are trained in same vain as social workers. The traditional thinking is that we cannot punish an offender out of substance addiction, because it is a physical addiction that cannot be broken in jail,” Tonaki says.

However, HOPE is working much better than the traditional probation system, which can resemble a “revolving door” where probationers come into the court system, receive jail time, and then they are back out again, some times committing other offenses, he says.

With results came acceptance by defense community. In fact, Tonaki says many lawyers now ask the judge to consider HOPE probation rather than prison.

And with Hawaii’s jails, prisons and treatment centers full, and newly elected Gov. Neil Abercrombie announcing plans to bring 2,000 additional prisoners home from Arizona, Tonaki says this program and the maturity of it are coming at a critical time.

“There is not the capacity locally to house the mainland prisoners, so we will need more of a reliance on programs like HOPE to address the substance abusers and reserve prison space for people who need to be incarcerated such as violent offenders and repeat offenders,” Tonaki says.

HOPE isn’t just backed by defense attorneys. In fact, it is popular among law enforcement and probation officers, partly because it has proven results and also because paperwork and red tape has been cut from several hours and agencies to one simple form that can be filled out by a probation officers in five minutes. Deputy prosecutor Kevin Takata helped create the new form.

Cheryl Inouye, the section administrator at the Judiciary’s Adult Client Service branch, agrees that substantially cutting the red tape and paperwork has empowered her probation officers.

“The greatest accomplishment this added is system accountability,” says Inouye, who was involved in the HOPE program from its inception. “There is a sense of fairness and accountability, and the clients know they are responsible for choices they make. If they continue to use drugs, there are consequences. And there is enough discomfort so that they are encouraged to make better choices to improve their lives. In addition, the probation officers become better change agents.”

US Marshals and state sheriffs also are involved with HOPE probation to ensure justice is swift. US Marshal Gervin Miyamoto says through an innovative partnership between federal and state law enforcement, state sheriffs on the Hawaii Fugitive Task Force working with the US marshals assist Alm in “providing real time consequences for their mis-deeds when probation violate conditions of the Hope Project.”

Supervisory Deputy US Marshal Brent Naluai explains that Alm, concerned that his supervised release warrants were not being executed in a timely manner, asked the U.S. Marshal and Hawaii Fugitive Task Force in 2005 for assistance. Deputy sheriffs began investigating and executing Alm’s warrants while carrying their own work for the task force.

“To date, the project has been so successful that three or four other state judges are following suit. The supervised release warrants that are issued by the bench are now being distributed between the Sheriff’s Division and Honolulu Police Department. The task force officers have and will continue to support of this project as outlined,” Naluai says.

But as Alm and Tonaki point out, it takes resources up front and a staff that is willing to work harder and smarter and keep in closer touch with those on probation.

“My message today is that this is not a miracle – any probation department in the country can do this with the right leadership, strong management, appropriate resources, technical assistance and rigorous performance tracking,” Alm says.

See more about HOPE here






  1. There is no question that the HOPE program works and is cost effective. The question is whether it is the Judiciary’s responsibility to rehabilitate criminal offenders or should it be another agency like DSSH. Isn’t it true that the Judiciary now employs more social workers than lawyers?

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