Criminal Justice

Lessons Learned from Judge Who Cut Parole Violations By Enforcing Rules


Confronted a little over five years ago with a hefty docket of ongoing parole violations, many related to drug issues, a state-court judge in Hawaii had a better idea.

Released inmates, it seemed, were allowed to ignore the rules repeatedly, with no real consequence. Then, perhaps the 10th time they did so, the hammer came down and they wound up serving a significant sentence for breaking parole, writes law professor Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington University in a lengthy New York Times magazine article.

Pondering his disciplinary approach concerning his own children, Judge Steven Alm felt this approach made little sense. “I thought, ‘This is crazy, this is a crazy way to change people’s behavior,’ ” he told Rosen.

At his instigation, a new regime was instituted. Inmates were warned that, from now on, the rules would be enforced. Then, virtually every time they were caught in a violation, they were given a short sentence. Except, hardly anyone violated their parole anymore, so few sentences were imposed, the article recounts.

The strategy Alm had intuitively understood—that the certainty of a fair, minimal punishment can be a more effective deterrent than an unlikely Draconian response—has implications for a criminal justice system struggling to deal with large inmate populations at a time when economic difficulties are driving cost-cutting, Rosen points out.

“In many states, the majority of prison admissions come not from arrests for new crimes, as you might think, but from probation and parole violations,” he writes. So if a program like Alm’s HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation With Enforcement) approach were applied nationally and achieved similar results, it would not only reduce incarceration expenses but reduce the need for jail sentences, period.

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