Less punishment, less crime

The latest Washington Monthly carries my account of Honolulu’s Project HOPE, which is probation done right. I claim that it points the way to having half as much crime and half as many people in prison.

HOPE probationers get arrested less than half as often, and for less serious crimes, than those under traditional probation. The reason may be that the HOPE participants are getting off drugs, which makes them less likely to steal to support their habits and more likely to get and keep jobs. Or it may be simply that they are leading more structured lives. In any event, it’s clear that HOPE reduces crime among those assigned to it.

In addition, HOPE has achieved something rare in the American criminal justice system, proving that it is actually possible to enforce the conditions of “community corrections” programs: probation and its cousin, parole. (Probationers are offenders who have been placed under supervision instead of being sent to prison; parolees are monitored in the community after serving part of their prison term.) This discovery has major policy implications. After twenty-five years of “tough on crime” orthodoxy, American politicians are urgently searching for workable alternatives to mass incarceration. The fiscal crisis has state governments scrambling to pay for prison systems that take a bigger share of state budgets than anything but health care and education. Senator Jim Webb is seeking to enact major criminal-justice reforms, reasoning that a system that holds one in 100 adults behind bars and has a 60 percent recidivism rate could probably be improved. Yet while mass incarceration has been under criticism, scant attention has been devoted to the inadequacies of the alternatives, probation and parole. In every state those systems are woefully underfunded and overburdened, unable to enforce their own rules or to prevent most of their clients from sliding back into criminal life. All of the other “community corrections” options—drug diversion programs, treatment courts, community service, home detention—depend on the probation system for their enforcement. As long as probation remains ineffective, any requirement imposed on an offender by the court is, in reality, no more than a helpful hint.

Without a functioning community-corrections system, the current enthusiasm for prison reform is likely to wither and fade. That’s what makes Judge Alm’s Hawaiian experiment so important. The biggest and cheapest opportunity to lower both incarceration and crime rates is to transform probation from a minor nuisance to the probationer into a real system of “outpatient corrections,” capable of monitoring and reforming the behavior of vast numbers of offenders.

The book from which the article is drawn, When Brute Force Fails, is rocketing up the best-seller lists. A month ago, it was #1.2 million and change on Amazon; now it’s up to #172,536. Having covered 85% of the distance to #1 in a month, WBBF will no doubt be well into negative numbers by fall. Amazon is helping by pricing the opus at $20.21, 33% off the cover price.