Jan 11, 2010

What works for parole violations?: "Swift, predictable, and moderate punishment."

The Sunday times article, Prisoners of Parole, describes some innovative approaches to reducing parole violations and gang violence. One program, Judge Alm's HOPE (Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) imposes immediate, moderate punishment for technical parole violations instead of allowing parolees to violate their conditions of parole a few times with no consequence followed by a harsh sanction such as jail time. The program's ethos is grounded in classical deterrence theory which offers the wisdom that: "the threat of a mild punishment imposed reliably and immediately has a much greater deterrent effect than the threat of a severe punishment that is delayed and uncertain." Such thinking may also underlie the increasing use of graduated sanctions for parolees who violate the technical conditions of their parole. (Check out Vera Institute for Justice and The Center for Court Innovation).

Why does "swift, predictable, and moderate" punishment work? The New York Times article points to recent studies in behavior economics: " [P]eople are more sensitive to the immediate than the slightly deferred future and focus more on how likely an outcome is than how bad it is," as well as Judge Alm's own revelations: “When the system isn’t consistent and predictable, when people are punished randomly, they think, My probation officer doesn’t like me, or, Someone’s prejudiced against me rather than seeing that everyone who breaks a rule is treated equally, in precisely the same way.”

Judge Alm's statements touch upon the relationship between a parolee's (or any defendant's) perception of procedural fairness and their compliance with a court sanction as well as their overall trust in the law. For more information on this critical and fascinating issue, take a look at Tom Tyler's groundbreaking work and the Red Hook Community Justice Center's Case Study.