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HOPE for drug offenders

So far, we have seen economists’ research on how the decision to commit crime can be affected by various factors, including police, prison, schooling, housing, welfare, alcohol regulation, and peer effects.

In spite of their differences in empirical settings and analytical methods used, these studies all share one common characteristic. They view crime as a result of an individual’s rational choice based on the expected costs and gains from crime, and would like to investigate how this rational criminal choice is influenced by the changes in these expected costs and gains.

However, it seems unrealistic that the rational choice framework can be applied to all types of crimes. In cases where offenders are not able to make rational choices, the rational choice model will not be very useful in explaining and predicting their criminal behavior.

Take the decision to consume illicit drug, for example. Some would believe it has more to do with a physical addiction than a rational choice by the drug user. (Relatedly, some of the illicit drug users hardly seem like rational decision makers.) But are they really incapable of making rational decisions? Will they not perceive and respond to different levels of gains and costs from the drug use?

Probation Crisis

Probation is the court-ordered period of community supervision. Instead of active incarceration, offenders are allowed to remain in their communities, conditional on their compliance with a set of probation conditions. Some of the typical conditions include regularly attending meetings with probation officers and scheduled court appearances, paying fines and restitutions, obeying all laws, and refraining from illicit drug use and excessive alcohol consumption. A minor violation of probation condition, when discovered, usually leads to a simple warning by the probation officer. But more serious and continued violations can lead to a probation revocation. The court then may order an extension of the current probation term, impose hefty fines, or send offenders to prison.

Probation is widely used as a more cost effective alternative to active incarceration. As of 2012, the number of adult probationers in the U.S. (3.9 million) was about twice as large as the number of those in prisons and jails (2.2 million). However, the number of individuals who successfully complete probation is disappointingly low, as many offenders have their probation revoked upon committing a new criminal offense or violating the probation conditions. In 2015, the rate of successful probation completion was only 66 percent.

The low completion rate is often blamed on limited resources. There are just too many probationers for the number of existing probation officers. (For example, in 2009, an average probation officer in Hawaii was responsible for 87 probationers.) This high caseload discourages and makes it difficult for probation officers to actively monitor probationers’ routine activities and wrong-doings. Even when the violation of probation condition is found, formal processing of the violation demands a lot of time and effort by probation officers. Many minor violations end up with a simple warning, and only few actually lead to court hearings, probation revocation, and active incarceration. While a probation violation can potentially lead to a very serious punishment (a revoked probation can easily lead to a few years of active incarceration), the probability that such punishment would actually take place is not that high. And this low probability of serious punishment upon a probation violation may further encourage probationers to commit more violations.

Project HOPE

In 2004, Judge Steven Alm, a judge of the First Circuit Court of Hawaii, created an experimental probation program called Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE). The aim of this program was to encourage successful probation completion and reduce recidivism and new prison entries by probationers. To achieve this goal, the program introduced an integrated enforcement system which led to unusually swift and certain sanctions on probation violations.

The HOPE intervention starts at the warning hearing at the court, where the judge indicates to the probationer that any violation of probation conditions will not be tolerated and assigns a color code to the probationer. Probationers with drug conditions (who represent a majority of the group) are required to go through frequent, randomized drug testing. The probationer has to call the HOPE hotline every weekday morning to check whether his assigned color code is chosen for a drug test that day. If chosen, he has to appear at the probation office that day and take a drug test. Offenders who fail to appear at the office or test positive for drug use are promptly brought before a judge (usually within 72 hours of violation) and sentenced to a short jail term (usually for a few days, though lengthier terms could be used for repeated violations).

The main innovation of the program was to make sure all violations led to unusually swift punishment. By simplifying the necessary paperwork by probation officers and court processes for probation violations, the program enabled the court to deliver swift punishment on all drug violators. This change was made possible by the fact that the punishment was usually very short jail terms. (Swiftly punishing all drug-using probationers with multi-year prison sentences would have been infeasible.) Furthermore, unlike the traditional probation program where probationers are tested for drug use at the (infrequent) scheduled appointments with probation officers, the random daily drug testing made it impossible for probationers to game the system. They had no idea when their assigned color code would be chosen for drug testing.

Criminologists Angela Hawken and Mark Kleiman evaluated the effect of the HOPE program on probationers’ violation and recidivism patterns and found very encouraging results. The average rate of a positive drug test was 53 percent before entering the program, but fell to 4 percent within six months. On the other hand, there was no significant change in the positive testing rate for probationers assigned to the traditional probation program (22 percent before entering the program, 19 percent within 6 months). This finding suggests that drug-using offenders, who hardly seem like rational decision makers, adjust their drug consumption pattern when the “cost” of using illicit drug increases.

One important limitation of Hawken and Kleiman’s study is that the selection of probationers for the HOPE program was not randomized. A comparison of the baseline characteristics of probationers assigned to the HOPE and traditional probation program shows that probationers assigned to the HOPE had higher baseline risk factors. (Note how they had higher positive drug testing rate before entering the program: 53% vs. 22%) As we know well by now, without a randomization, the difference in their drug use behavior may not be fully attributed as the causal effect of the HOPE. However, the researchers ran a randomized control trial in 2007 which corresponded to the initial evaluation study, and obtained comparable finding. This time, the rate of positive urine tests during a 12-month probation period was 13% for the probationers assigned to the HOPE and 46% for probationers assigned to the traditional probation program.


References:

  • Hawken, Angela, and Mark Kleiman. “Managing Drug Involved Probationers with Swift and Certain Sanctions: Evaluating Hawaii’s HOPE.” Washington, DC: National Criminal Justice Reference Services (2009).

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Economics of Crime

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