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HOPE for the Criminal Justice System

Just about everyone who has spent time around the American criminal justice system will tell you that it is broken. Political scientist James Q. Wilson, whom no one would ever call “soft on crime,” described the heart of the problem this way: “This country imprisons too many people on drug charges with little observable effect.”

Yet, despite the obvious problems, the status quo persists in most places. Fortunately, one place is doing things differently.

That place is Hawaii. For years, Judge Steve Alm watched as the system failed time and again. Drug offenders on probation would consistently flunk drug tests, and after 13 or 14 violations would be sent to prison for a long time. Judge Alm, a former federal prosecutor, wondered, “Why do we let them continue to break the rules? Why not impose consequences immediately — on the first violation — but not sentence them for years, but just days, to get their attention and let them know we’re serious about them staying clean?”

He hit upon the problem with the old way of handling violations: the lag between violations and other consequence was so long that most offenders believed they could act with impunity.

Out of Judge Alm’s frustration grew Project HOPE, which stands for “Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement.” One of HOPE’s guiding principles is that what matters with drug and other non-violent offenders is the certainty, not the severity, of punishment. That’s why under the HOPE program, the sanctions are certain, swift, and fair.

Offenders are required to call a hotline to learn whether they are going to be tested that day. Failing the drug test leads to immediate arrest. They sit in jail until a hearing, usually within 48 hours. This is all it takes for most of them to “get with the program.”

The results are striking: HOPE participants are “55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime, 72 percent less likely to test positive for drugs and 61 percent less likely to skip appointments with their probation officer.”

In a clear example of “win-win;” for every dollar Hawaii spends on HOPE, it saves three dollars. And communities are safer.

This is the kind of smart approach that Justice Fellowship has been advocating for years. It begins with a biblical, clear-eyed view of human nature. It holds offenders accountable without adding to prison overcrowding. HOPE’s success has caused other jurisdictions to be willing to embrace this alternative to incarceration.

That’s why Virginia legislators were willing to work with Justice Fellowship to establish similar pilot programs in that state. In fact, one of these programs is located near Prison Fellowship’s national office in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Programs like HOPE hold offenders accountable and save money. They are also the right thing to do. The Hope program allows non-dangerous offenders to maintain their ties with their communities and learn how to obey the law even when they are not being constrained. That’s why the HOPE program is so aptly named.

For more information on biblically based solutions for our nation’s criminal justice system, visit JusticeFellowship.org.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication dateJanuary 25, 2012

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