- Special Projects
Judge Steve Alm downplays any notion that all he wants to talk about is HOPE, but his wife and son say otherwise.
At a retirement party for Alm held Monday at the 1st Circuit Court jury room, Haunani Ho Alm and Chris Alm made clear to a packed room — where, you might say, Alm was being judged by a jury of his peers — that the judge can talk endlessly about his creation, Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or the HOPE Program.
To hear Haunani tell it, Steve has been talking nonstop about HOPE since the program was conceived in 2004.
Chris said his dad talked about HOPE during a car ride with Chris’ buddies from Manoa to Kailua.
And even Steve admits he even talked about HOPE the time the Alm family checked out mainland colleges for Chris.
But Steve Alm has good reason to talk.
If probationers cut their drug use, keep appointments with probation officers and work to finish drug treatment programs, Alm will not be forced to send them back behind bars — something he will not hesitate to do — if probationers fail sanctioning.
Alm’s insight, one made concrete with the help of Probation Section Administrator Cheryl Inouye and key stakeholders such as the sheriff’s office and the Honolulu Police Department, was to remake Honolulu’s felony probation system by treating people like adults and giving them a chance to go clean.
By multiple measures, HOPE has been a runaway success and a model being adopted across the nation.
Research conducted by UCLA and Pepperdine University as well as the Hawaii attorney general’s office, for example, compared HOPE probationers to a control group without the program’s options. Those in the program were 72 percent less likely to test positive for drugs and 61 percent less likely to miss probation officer appointments.
Probationers arrested for new crimes saw their probation revoked half as often, leading to a 48 percent drop. Not only does HOPE help offenders and their families, the Judiciary says, it saves taxpayers million of dollars.
The praise for HOPE and Alm comes from the top of the state’s judicial system.
“Since he came to the Judiciary, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the amazing transformation that has taken place in so many different programs that he’s been a part of, but none more notably than the HOPE Probation program,” Hawaii Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said at Alm’s retirement party. “The impact that it’s had is just amazing. It now exists in some form or another in more than 30 states across the nation.”
Recktenwald said it all started with the vision of one person “who saw a program and saw challenges and thought there was a better way.”
Alm is now taking his message of HOPE to Washington, D.C. He and Haunani, a former deputy prosecutor and administrative law judge, are renting out their Hawaii home for three years and moving to Bethesda, Maryland. Steve will work as a legal consultant to states, the Department of Justice and Congress. He might even set up a nonprofit HOPE institute if funding can be secured.
It’s partly a move based on geography. Alm already travels once or twice a month to speak to groups and offer advice across the country and it’s a long flight across the Pacific Ocean let alone to the East Coast.
But it’s also time for a change, both professional and personal. Alm, 63, said he’s never spent much time on the East Coast, and he and his wife are looking forward to exploring the area, including by bicycle.
“I am a lucky lawyer,” said Alm. “I enjoyed being a prosecutor, then U.S. attorney and then being a judge. I’ve been able to work with great people — this business is all about teamwork. But I think it is time to keep moving in the same direction, just in a different location.”
As Civil Beat wrote in 2012, Alm is a born salesman, a boxer as a kid growing up in Honolulu who doesn’t easily give up on what’s important to him.
Alm doesn’t talk down down to probationers who are before him for, say, using meth. He levels with them — they need to turn their lives around or they’ll be locked up.
At Alm’s retirement party, it was apparent that he had not deviated from his proven practice.
Abby Paredes, the CEO of a treatment program called Poailani, shared the reaction of probationers — now called clients — when Alm arrives to deliver program graduation speeches at the facility.
“When they see Judge Alm walk through the door, their eyes light up and they all have the same look of pride and accomplishment, each saying, ‘Look at me, judge. I did it. I’m not going back to jail.’”
Paredes described it as Alm’s “daddy effect.”
Chaminade University’s president, Brother Bernie Ploeger, hails Alm for the insight that sometimes what people most need is another chance. Ploeger credits this to Alm’s “understanding heart as well as a keen mind.”
Add “executive personality” to Alm’s characteristics. That’s the way U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni described him.
As Nakakuni pointed out, HOPE is just one of Alm’s accomplishments. Another is Weed and Seed, a strategy launched in 1998 and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice that involves “weeding” out the bad elements in drug-ridden neighborhoods like Chinatown and Kalihi-Palama and “seeding” positive elements.
Alm has also been a supporter of the Justice Reinvestment initiative, a data-driven approach to reducing crime and decreasing prison populations launched in 2011. While the program has sputtered a bit lately, Alm and others involved in advocating for the initiative think it’s still worth pursuing.
And just this year, Gov. David Ige signed legislation intended to streamline the state’s penal code. The bill was based on recommendations from the Penal Code Review Committee, a once-a-decade task force made up of a wide range of officials (and chaired by Alm) and advocates to examine the state’s criminal statutes.
It’s important to note that Alm, working with various law enforcement agencies, had a pretty good streak of successful prosecutions as U.S. attorney from 1994 to 2001.
They included political corruption cases involving the likes of former Honolulu City Councilman Andy Mirikitani, Speaker of the House Danny Kihano and state Sen. Milton Holt, as well as United Public Workers boss Gary Rodrigues, who was busted for labor racketeering.
Hawaii’s U.S. Marshal Gervin Miyamoto recalls working with Alm when the judge was the U.S. attorney and Miyamoto was his law enforcement coordinator.
It was 1999 and the two men were at a conference — Phoenix, maybe, or Houston — and Alm suggested he and Miyamoto get a beer. Instead of heading to a bar, however, Alm had them pick up a six-pack and head back to their hotel, where they drank beers and watched the Fox News Channel program “Hannity & Colmes.”
Alm’s last day was Wednesday. Judge William Domingo will be taking over his calendar as a search for a permanent Circuit Court judge is conducted.
Since 2004, a total of 5,584 people had been enrolled in HOPE Probation on Oahu. Statewide, the number is 6,515.
Alm now is preparing for the move, and he’s excited because criminal justice reform is being embraced nationally and at the federal level.
“Both Democrats and Republicans can agree on this,” he said. “The Republicans tend to like the accountability part and saving money, while Democrats like doing better with probation and not sending people to prison.”
Alm does not hesitate to punish criminals.
“If they are really violent and dangerous, they need to be in prison,” he said.
But as states “get smarter” on who to send to prison, Alm foresees an increase in the number of probationers who are in need of a program like HOPE.
Chief Justice Recktenwald, who worked with Alm in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, summarizes the impact of programs like HOPE, and judges like Alm.
“There is lot of cynicism about government nowadays, a lot of thoughts that government can’t meet the challenges we have in our society, that it’s not up to the task,” he said. “The best answer I can give to those folks who despair or who are overcome by cynicism is Judge Steven Alm. He shows one person can make a difference. One person can make people’s lives better.”