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Had Steven Alm not chosen a career in the judicial system, he would have made a heck of a salesman.
He sold me on writing this article, for example, after I repeatedly blew him off.
“Maybe after the Legislature is pau,” I told him last spring. “Maybe after the primary is pau,” I told him this summer.
What I didn’t tell Alm, a First Circuit Court judge in Honolulu, is that I wasn’t sure there was anything new to say about the “product” that he was “selling” — Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement program, or HOPE.
Alm launched HOPE three years after joining the bench in 2004. Since that time, the program has received international recognition, a made-in-Hawaii model for reducing recidivism and crime.
In a nutshell, HOPE identifies probationers likely to violate their community supervision and gives them two choices: either get clean and sober, or get locked up. Frequent random drug tests keep the probationers honest; if they don’t follow the instructions of a daily hotline, a warrant could be issued for their arrest.
Old story, I thought. It’s been covered in publications as diverse as Honolulu magazine, Forbes, Science and Technology, the National Institute of Justice, the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Oregonian and The New York Times.
But Alm, 59, a former U.S. attorney and Honolulu deputy prosecuting attorney who boxed as a kid growing up in Honolulu, doesn’t give up easily. He called me not long after the Aug. 11 primary election and said, “Well?”
Alm had me on the hook. And after visiting his court this week, I learned there were new developments about his program.
The man from HOPE had sealed the deal.
Alm may be the public face for HOPE, a virtual one-man-public-relations machine, but in Courtroom No. 5 at Kaahumanu Hale in downtown Honolulu, he is all business.
As he does most weekdays from 8:30 a.m. until well into the afternoon, Alm issues the “HOPE warning” to probationers at risk of slipping back into the bad habits that got them into trouble in the first place.
On Wednesday, that included five young men and a young woman who shuffled into the courtroom before him. One by one, the judge asked each of them questions — like “How old are you?” “Where do you live?” and “When was the last time you used?”
Most of them were in their early 20s, most had used “ice” (crystal methamphetamine), most sported tattoos and all were from Oahu neighborhoods including Waianae, Kalihi, Kailua and Kaneohe.
Though Alm wears a black robe and sits above the group on his bench, he does not talk down to the people in his courtroom. He is instructional but conversational, putting probationers at ease — they often smile and laugh at his jokes — but also making them pay close attention to what he has to say.
But what Alm has to say to them is direct and serious:
Recognize that you are adults. No one put a gun to your head to take drugs. Everyone wants you to succeed.
We are going to give you a drug test. If you fail, we are going to lock you up, either in jail for a few days or prison for much longer. It will cost the state $50,000 to send you to Halawa, $30,000 to send you to Arizona. It’s cheaper if you just stop using.
You think the drug test will reveal a “false positive”? We’ll find out. You may leave here and go back to partying, but we’ll find you. You want to fly to the mainland, change your name and wash dishes? That won’t work.
In spite of the frank talk, Alm’s voice is not stentorian. Rather, he sounds a little like a father admonishing a son or daughter.
“Don’t overanalyze this,” Alm finally said to the probationers. “Any questions?”
The young woman, 21, raises her hand. Earlier she told Alm she had been clean since her arrest in February, but after hearing his warning she tells him she was recently hanging out with friends who were smoking marijuana. Would secondhand smoke show up on her drug test?
“Good question,” says Alm, who instructed the woman to tell that to the drug testers downstairs so that the lab could check her sample.
“It’s time to look in the mirror,” he said to the group. “It’s time to grow up. I hope we never see you again.”
Alm will see many of his probationers again, but the success rate of HOPE is remarkable: positive drug tests reduced by 86 percent, an 80 percent drop in missed probation appointments, revocations of probation down by more than 50 percent and arrests for new crimes cut by more than 50 percent.
A one-year randomized controlled trial funded by the National Institue of Justice showed that HOPE probationers were 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime, 72 percent less likely to use drugs, 61 percent less likley to skip appointments with their probation officers and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked.
The program also helps save the state money, according to the NIJ study. Fewer inmates in prisons means less expense to house them.
Others are noticing, and at the highest levels of government. As Alm promised, there have been new developments, and significant ones at that.
A June 2012 report from the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control cited HOPE in its study on reducing U.S. demand for illegal drugs. The Obama administration’s National Drug Control Strategy (“Building on a Record of Reform”) cites HOPE as well.
HOPE began in 2004 with 34 cases. It currently administers 2,100 active cases, and Alm’s court handles nearly all of them.
Alm came up with the idea for HOPE after he found his court calendar packed with motions to revoke probation for people with 10 to 20 violations. In most cases, the usual course was to send them to prison.
“I wasn’t out to change the entire probation system,” he told Civil Beat. “I just thought, ‘What we’re doing doesn’t work.’ And I thought to myself, ‘What would work?’ And I thought, well, ‘How was I raised? How am I raising my kid?'”
Alm, who has a son, continued: “You know, you tell them what the family rules are, and if he misbehaves you do something immediately. … But it’s gotta be swift and certain. It doesn’t have to be severe, but regular probation is akin to telling your kid who does something really bad, ‘In six months I might disown you,’ and then walk away. Leniency is not kindness. Some kind of firmness, some kind of structure (is needed), but with caring.”
Alm says it’s all about Parenting 101.
“I believe many of these probationers grew up in families where there are no consequences, no structure,” he said.
What HOPE facilitates is a form of what’s called “cognitive restructuring,” a term that Alm admits sounds Orwellian. But changing behavior, he says, comes through “teachable moments,” through convincing offenders to “buy in” to a program that is fair.
Sometimes the teaching requires multiple lessons.
Alm relates the story of an offender who managed to somehow smuggle a sample of a friend’s urine into the courtroom bathrooms where the drug tests are conducted. The results of the test, which can detect 10 types of drugs, is immediate.
The woman’s borrowed sample proved “dirty.” It was off to jail for her.
Born salesman that he is, Alm began discussions with colleagues in the justice system — the probation officers, the public defenders, the prosecutors, the cops — to see what could be done about the large number of failed probations.
It was a method he developed during the implementation of “weed and seed” programs when he was U.S. attorney.
Alm also did so quietly, not informing the press until he was ready to show results. That came in 2008.
The program now had a name, thanks to an internal contest. Unsuccessful entries included “yank and spank,” while his own son suggested “fail and jail.” HOPE sounded, well, hopeful.
Interviewing Alm in his chambers before court and during breaks, the judge handed me one printed document after another, including the federal reports mentioned earlier. Many included highlights of key passages and Post-it notes to the appropriate reference. He even gave me a DVD titled “Beyond Prison” that features HOPE.
Alm talks fast and has the ability to continue his train of thought even when interrupted, say, by a reporter with questions. He also anticipates questions — by now he’s likely heard just about everything a reporter can think to ask about HOPE — and will say things like, “I’ll get to that later.”
In addition to selling the press and offenders on HOPE, Alm’s sales region is now national — judges, probation groups and the like. States that now have a HOPE-like program include Alaska, Arizona, Missouri and Indiana (Indiana calls its program Hoosier Opportunity Probation with Enforcement).
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department announced late last year that it would sponsor exact replications of HOPE in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Oregon. It’s called the Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement.
“I travel once a month on somebody else’s dime to explain this,” he said. “I’ve gone to Stockholm twice.”
Alm, who is the younger brother of Hawaiian Electric Co. executive Robbie Alm, has a high profile in Hawaii’s legal community. He co-chaired the working group on the state’s “justice reinvestment initiative” to free open prison space and cut costs in Hawaii’s judicial system.
But Judge Alm says he has no ambition for a higher court position because he wants to help change communities across the country.
“The potential is there to do that at all three levels — probation, parole and pre-trial,” he said. “There is credibility now to talk to others. Judges, for example, don’t like to listen to others except maybe other judges.”
During a break in court proceedings, Alm told me, “We’re not saying this is magic. People on HOPE are going to get charged with new crimes just like people on regular probation are going to get charged with new crimes. The good news is, the people in HOPE are getting charged half as often.”
“There has been no program that has reduced drug use like HOPE,” he said. “Ever.”
Judge Steve Alm HOPE warning hearing, First Circuit Courtroom 5, Honolulu, Aug. 29, 2012.