Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Reducing Recidivism

June 5, 2013 Slate has an article about an approach to probation that Hawaii uses which has substantially reduced recidivism by offenders and even more dramatically reduced drug addiction among probationers.  Most amazingly of all:
“Ordinarily, when you ask an inmate why he’s behind bars, it’s always someone else’s fault,” Hawken said. “ ‘I’m in jail because the judge is an SOB’; ‘I’m in jail because my probation officer had a bad day.’ ” But in Honolulu she encountered men and women who, unbidden and unpressured, praised the system that put them away, and told her they were locked up because they had “messed up”—something so unusual, she said, that it made her skin tingle. “That language of personal responsibility is unimaginable if you’re a criminal justice researcher.”
HOPE’s creator is an unrelentingly sunny and vigorous man named Steven Alm. He became a judge in 2001 after serving as Hawaii’s U.S. attorney. During his first week in office, he encountered rampant recidivism and a probation system that struck him as “crazy”: Probation officers would let slide up to 10 or 15 probation violations before they recommended to a judge that offenders be sent to prison. This practice is common in the rest of the United States, and because there are so many Americans on probation, its ramifications are enormous.
After his first, frustrating week on the job, Judge Alm began thinking about how he disciplined his kids. Children punished under a system that is consistent, predictable, and prompt, he knew, are less likely to misbehave than children who face delayed, arbitrary, and unpredictable punishment, and it was his insight to see that these parenting truisms could be applied to the incarceration system he oversaw. “I thought about how I was raised and how I raise my kids. Tell ’em what the rules are and then if there’s misbehavior you give them a consequence immediately. That’s what good parenting is all about.”
This should not be a radical idea.  Which is more likely to make you drive the speed limit?  A .01% probability that you will get a $150 ticket?  Or a 10% probability that you will get a $20 ticket?  The more certain you are that punishment will happen, the more likely you are to do what you are supposed to do.  


  1. Heinlein said as much in "Starship Troopers". Written in 1958 or '59. What a shame no one listened.

  2. Yes, but Starship Troopers was FASCIST! It promoted the idea that citizenship should be earned by willingness to sacrifice for the common good.