Feb 6 7:00 PM

Could this be the solution to America's probation problem?

America Tonight

America Tonight has been dedicated to exploring what is – and isn't – working in how the U.S. justice system polices, prosecutes and punishes. Explore the rest of our reporting on "How America Does Justice."

Update 06/17/14: In recent years, the role of parole boards have again been called into question, and swift policy changes have followed. In this week's episode of "The System," the topic is the changing face of parole in Massachusetts and Connecticut, which will offer a look at a few of the countless lives touched by these gatekeepers of justice -- one man’s controversial journey through the Massachusetts department of corrections and another in Connecticut whose future will be decided with help from a new risk assessment tool.

In February, America Tonight traveled to Hawaii to profile HOPE, an alternative probation program that's tough on crime, but also keeps people out of prison -- making it a model that other states are trying to replicate. Tune in to the report at 9 ET/6 PT. 


Paradise on earth is how most people know Hawaii - white sandy beaches and coconut palms. But there are Hawaiians living outside the frame on the picture postcard.

The roughly 8 million tourists who visit the state each year attract a lot of property crime. Even an ocean away from the mainland, the methamphetamine market is thriving. The islands have jails and prisons, and plenty of people to fill them. But Judge Steven Alm is trying to bring his home state a little bit closer to the paradise people imagine.

To do that, he’s spearheaded an alternative probation program, one that delivers immediate consequences – often jail time -- for each and every infraction. The program is tough on crime, while also keeping people out of prison. And this double feat has made it a nascent darling in the world of criminal justice policy, with states across the political spectrum seeking it out as a model. 

The probation problem

Judge Steven Alm on his motorcycle.
America Tonight

Alm grew up in Hawaii, where he earned the badge of “tough guy” the rough and tumble way, taking a few punches in the boxing ring.

“When I boxed, I was one of two white guys in the gym,” he told America Tonight.

At first, he says he wasn't taken seriously, but then he proved himself in the ring. Years later, Alm scored a walk-on role for the original “Hawaii Five-0,” the long-running police drama. His character was quickly knocked out, but Alm’s tough guy reputation remained. He did make a career change though: from amateur boxing to law.

From the deputy prosecuting attorney for Honolulu to the U.S. Attorney for Hawaii and finally judge, Alm won the respect of the law enforcement community.

“I was the toughest enforcer in the courthouse,” he said. “I gave more consecutive sentences than anybody else.”

That reputation gave Alm an opportunity. He knew Hawaii and the justice system. He also knew it needed a change, particularly the probation program.

In case you’ve been caught mistaking parole for probation, here’s a little refresher. 

Parole is conditional release from prison, granted to inmates who have already served part of their sentence. Probation is an alternative to prison time, offered by the court during sentencing. So rather than doing hard time in a cell, the guilty party remains free - with certain stipulations. They vary by jurisdiction, but typically include paying a restitution fee, reporting to a probation officer, refraining from alcohol, being subject to drug tests and staying within particular geographic areas.

The principle makes sense, according to Alm. Probation is a great way to keep people out of prison, help them rebuild their lives and ease the burden on taxpayers.

The problem is that probationers rampantly violate the rules, and are often sent back to prison is at the discretion of the probation officer or presiding judge. How those authorities respond to violations varies widely from state to state, according to a 2007 Pew Study, with "enormous implications" for prison population size, cost and public safety.

For Alm, it’s the consequences that are missing. He says probationers will violate their conditions two, three or four times, and nothing happens. It’s only the 20th or even 30th infraction that comes with repercussions. At that point, the probationer is slammed, usually with several years in prison.

“You know, you can either send them to prison or to the beach,” Alm is fond of saying. “That’s not a knock on probation officers. It’s just a reflection that probation, as usual, just doesn’t work very well.”

So Alm had a radical idea: punish probationers at their very first stumble.

In 2004, Alm founded HOPE, short for Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement. Its central principle is simple, Alm explained: “If there are any violations of probation, they’re going to go to jail.”

A signed photograph from Judge Steven Alm to Michelle Rodriguez.
Michelle Rodriguez

No ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass

America Tonight sat in on Alm’s courtroom, as a fresh crop of HOPE probationers -- selected by their presiding judge as suitable for the program -- approached the bench.

Alm always starts with a warning: HOPE is an opportunity, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

“The idea would be, you guys would follow all the rules of probation,” he told the assembled probationers.

If that happens, Alm said, he will never see them again. And that’s a good thing. It means no more court, no more jail and no prison. If they make a mistake, they face a swift and certain penalty. Alm calls it parenting 101.

“You do something wrong, your parents give you consequences immediately,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

It’s no coincidence that Alm was raising his son when HOPE was conceived. It provides probationers with clear rules, mild but unavoidable sanctions, and a strict structure.

Probationers are required to call the HOPE hotline each morning. If the color code they were given at their first hearing comes up, they must report for a drug test before 2 p.m. that day. During their first two months, probationers will be selected for testing at least once a week. The results are immediate, but if contested, the sample is sent to the lab and returned within three days. If they test positive, and especially if they lied, probationers face the consequences, which escalate with infractions. On the other hand, those probationers who appear, pass their tests and remain clean over time, receive fewer and fewer tests.

“I recognize, we’re all human beings. We make bad choices, we can make bad mistakes."

Judge Steven Alm

Telling the truth and admitting mistakes are also a cornerstone of the program.

“I recognize, we’re all human beings,” Alm tells the probationers. “We make bad choices, we can make bad mistakes … if that happens come in and admit it to your PO [Probation Officer] right away… You get a few days in jail.”

In HOPE, it’s lying that’s the real crime.

“If you ever test positive and deny it, and the lab confirms it, you’re going to get 15 [days in jail],” he said.

There’s some room for discretion, but typically the rules are hard and fast, and a few people just don’t make it. Alm explains it like a pyramid. Most people do not violate, at all. A smaller group violates once and an even smaller group violates twice. The HOPE probationers who end up in prison are the ones who need to be in prison, he said. That’s where the resources need to go.

“If you fail,” Alm said, “that’s a prison sentence and $46,000 a year of taxpayer money.”

Alm comfortably admits that it’s his job to assume the worst. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free pass.

Charles Akau was about to learn that.

“Mr. Akau,” Alm says from the bench, “you’ve been doing this long enough to know how the HOPE system works.”

Akau drives buses of tourists around the island of Oahu. But after failing to show up for his last drug test, he was about to miss his next few weekends of wages. In Alm’s world, not showing up is the same as showing up dirty.

“You’re going to custody right now. I’m going to give you five weekends,” said Alm.

Akau quipped about having to leave his car in the court parking lot, as he was whisked away to the county jail. But Alm stood firm. No car. No excuses.

A believer in HOPE

Michelle Rodriguez, at church.
America Tonight

One of the greatest points of pride for Alm is that the probationers themselves believe in the program. They think it’s fair, he contends.

“On regular probation, you can fool the system. You can fake it,” Michelle Rodriguez said. “You can do whatever you need to do and still get by, and then get an early release because they never detected anything.”

HOPE accepts every person it’s given by presiding judges, including a quarter of the state’s felony cases. With seven felony convictions, Fernandez fits snuggly into that category. Her crimes include drugs, drug dealing and robbery.

“I robbed everybody in this building,” she told America Tonight, at the apartment building that she lives in and manages. “If they owed me money, I’d attack someone. I had guys from prison that were my right hand men. They’d go break down the door. They’d take whatever they had.”

She was using too. Fernandez shrunk to less than 100 pounds and suffered two heart attacks.

Fernandez’ eyes literally light up remembering the day she was told about HOPE probation. It was after her second yearlong prison sentence, and she was selected for the HOPE program.

It didn’t take long for her to fail a drug test, landing her in jail for 15 days, or five weekends, she said.  

She wasn’t happy being back in jail, but she was an addict and breaking the habit was a struggle. She had a second dirty test, this time for cocaine. That landed her five more weekends. She had to find a place for her cats. She couldn’t work. She missed home.

“And then I said, ‘I’m done. I can’t do this any more,’” she remembered.

So far, she hasn’t. Fernandez is now back at home at the apartment building she manages. And as long as she stays in HOPE, she knows that if she does mess up again, there will be consequences. And they will be worse.

“ I have a beautiful home,” she said. “I’d rather be in my A/C with my remote control rather than sitting in a cell…”

Does it work?

Data suggests the program works.

In a 2010 study conducted by Pepperdine University and UCLA, and summarized by the Pew Center on the States and the National Institute of Justice, HOPE probationers were 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime, 53 percent less likely to have their probation provoked, 61 percent less likely to skip appointments with their supervisory officer and 72 percent less likely to use drugs. 

America Tonight

But HOPE does take more work than ordinary probation. It uses more police resources and the prosecutors and defenders have to hear more cases, requirements that have caused some to voice concern about how the program can strain the criminal justice system.

"The Corrections Division is required to expend manpower, money and resources to house these short term offenders taking up needed cell space and resources for the pre-trial population," Rosalina Aipopo, of the Department of Public Safety, told the Hawaii Reporter in 2011 about the limited available resources.

Its critics point out that while the HOPE program has expanded, the law enforcement apparatus has not.

But Alm argues the program actually saves the state millions of dollars a year in prison costs. The Pepperdine study showed that HOPE probationers served or were sentenced to 48 percent fewer days of incarceration than those on regular probation. And at the $50,000 a year it costs to incarcerate an offender in Hawaii, Alm pointed out, the amount the program saves adds up.

Alm is unapologetic for the additional work the program demands from prosecutors and defenders who have to hear more cases.

“This is what we get paid to do,” he said. “This is our job.”

The program’s results haven't gone unnoticed. Seventeen other states have implemented its principles and foreign governments have made inquiries as well. In January, the Obama administration’s office on drug control gave HOPE $4 million in federal funding, a reward for Alm’s success.

The judge knows exactly where that money will go.

“It is going to reduce the size of our prison system,” he said, “because right now a lot of our probationers are failing – many people fail at probation and end up in prison, many people do a prison sentence, get out on parole, fail on parole and go back into prison.”

And even tough guys like Alm say some of them shouldn’t be there, and that all they really need is a little bit of HOPE.



Crime, Law & Justice

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter