A key goal of community corrections (probation, parole or supervised release, juvenile supervision) is to encourage desistance from crime. It tries to do so using a mix of supervision and services. But success rates are mediocre, especially for those leaving prison, who are more likely than not to return within three years as a result of either violations of release conditions or new crimes.
HOPE-style probation – close monitoring with swift, certain, and minimal sanctions – demonstrably outperforms routine supervision-and-services. The question is why. And that leads me to step away from my usual policy-analyst role and consider doing actual research. A sketch of the idea is at the jump; comments and references would be most welcome.
HOPE can be thought of in terms of more effective deterrence: substituting swiftness and certainty for severity. But it may also influence client behavior through a different mechanism: by improving their capacity to shape their own behavior in light of their long-term goals. Many studies demonstrate that measures of self-command strongly predict social, educational, health, and criminal-justice outcomes, even controlling for SES and measured IQ. Four-year-olds who succeed in waiting fifteen minutes before eating a marshmallow when given the inducement that those who wait get a second marshmallow as well, are more likely to finish high school and less likely to go to prison than otherwise similar four-year-olds who can’t wait that long.
A variety of concepts from behavioral economics, personality psychology, social psychology, and criminology relate to self-command: locus of control, self-efficacy, impulsivity, hyperbolic discounting, delay of gratification, and Conscientiousness (from the Big Five) and some of its subscales. Some appear to be relatively stable personal traits; others seem to be more state-like and domain-specific. There’s evidence that some programs (such as the Nurse-Family Partnership) can influence self-command when applied to young children; much less is known about the malleability of that characteristic in later childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.
A striking finding from the Hawaii probationer interviews was the clients’ high level of satisfaction with the program – surprising in what was, after all, basically a tightening of control – and their use of language suggesting that they were taking responsibility for their own outcomes. It’s possible, but by no means demonstrated, that HOPE outperforms routine probation partly because it creates an island of predictability in what are otherwise highly chaotic personal environments. The random severity of punishments for probation violations reproduces many of the characteristics of bad parenting; we don’t know whether HOPE, which replaces randomness with predictability and thus moves the actual locus of control inward, might affect the psychological locus of control.
That suggests a fairly straightforward study:
1. Find a jurisdiction with an established HOPE or Sobriety 24/7 program running successfully and ready to expand.
2. Select eligibles based on official data (without talking to the subjects). Look for substance abuse problems and serious criminal history; perhaps also non-compliance on probation.
3. Ask for consent to psych battery plus two or three one-hour interviews over two years plus maybe hair at the end.
4. Non-consenters still get randomized into treatment (HOPE or 24/7) or control (probation as usual).
5. Consenters get as much assessment as we can get them to submit to: LSIR or whatever the agency uses for risk/needs assessment; some measure of substance abuse; baseline measures of personal and social functioning (physical/mental health, residence, employment, family status, individual social capital if we can measure it); locus-of-control measure, impulsivity measure; measure of ability to defer gratification (marshmallow-test equivalent for adults); perhaps measure of “criminal thinking” from cognitive-behavioral therapy.
6. Consenters then get stratified and randomized.
7. Outcome measures for everyone:
- Six-month and one-year compliance snapshots (on the street, not absconded, no positive tests in previous two months).
8. Outcome measures for consenters:
- Repeat personal and social inventory.
- Repeat risk and needs assessment
- Repeat substance abuse measure
- Repeat locus-of-control
- Repeat impulsivity
- Repeat marshmallow test
- Repeat “criminal thinking”
- Accuracy of perception of conditions of probation
- Perceived fairness and predictability of probation
1. What are risk and protective factors for success on HOPE?
2. Is there an identifiable group that would have done better with a quick treatment mandate?
3. Are there systematic changes in self-command measures in the experimental group compared to the control group? If so, do they exceed those associated with desistance from drug abuse? Do they correlate with perceptions of the probation process?
4. Do those changes correlate with other outcomes?