Q & A

Adam Gelb: Enhancing Public Safety


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Adam Gelb, Director, Public Safety Performance Project

Adam Gelb

October 6, 2011 — The Department of Justice announced last week that four states will share more than $3 million to replicate an innovative probation program that has dramatically reduced crime and drug use, increased accountability among probationers, and saved taxpayer dollars.

Public Safety Performance Project director Adam Gelb discusses the expansion of Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation and Enforcement (HOPE) program and, more broadly, how new evidence about what works to break the cycle of crime and imprisonment is helping states cut corrections costs and enhance public safety.


Q: County and court agencies in Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas have received federal backing to replicate HOPE. What is HOPE and why has it received national attention?

A: HOPE is a program that uses short-term jail stays to deter high-risk probationers from committing new crimes or breaking the rules of their supervision and ending up back in state prison.

More than five million people are on probation or parole in the United States. That’s twice the number behind bars. Offenders who violate supervision are one of the biggest drivers of prison population growth. Research shows that to deter negative behavior, penalties should be applied swiftly and certainly. The severity is less important. The same is true for rewards: the more swift and certain, the more impact.

HOPE puts this research into action. HOPE probationers are given random and regular drug tests, virtually ensuring they’ll be caught if they’re using. If they test positive for drugs or violate other terms of their supervision, they are sanctioned immediately to a few days in jail. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. It’s a no-nonsense program and for many offenders, it does the trick. They get the message and clean up.

Q: What is the potential of expanding the HOPE program across the country?

A: There aren’t any magic bullets that can end America’s continuing battle with crime and addiction. But HOPE comes closer than anything we’ve seen in a long time. It has remarkable impact—cutting new arrests and failed drug tests by more than half, compared to a randomly selected control group.  And it can be applied to thousands of offenders at a time. It’s not a boutique program that works well with a few dozen.

The replication sites will help answer some critical questions: Which probationers respond best to HOPE? Once offenders leave HOPE supervision, how long will the impact last? The answers could pave the way to a much larger replication effort that really could make a substantial dent in crime and recidivism.

Q: Are there other ways that states can reduce the rate of prison returns?

A: In the last 10 or 15 years, the courts and supervision agencies have moved from the age of instinct to the information age. There has been an explosion of research about what works to reduce recidivism, and a lot of what works has to do with identifying specific predictors of criminal behavior called “risk factors.” Technological innovations have given corrections professionals sophisticated tools that can identify an offender’s criminal risk factors and needs. The tools typically consist of a set of questions that guide face-to-face interviews with offenders. Based on the responses and an official criminal history check, the tools produce a score that identifies the risk that an individual might reoffend.

Before the tools got this advanced, courts, prosecutors, and probation and parole officers had little more to rely on other than personal experience and their hunches about offenders. Professional instincts will always play a role, but these tools help officials use scientifically validated data to make critical distinctions between high- and low-risk offenders.

Q: Why is it so important to make distinctions between high- and low-risk offenders?

A: There’s a widespread assumption that if you put low-risk offenders in intensive programs it will prevent them from graduating to a more serious offense. It’s an understandable intuition, but it’s wrong. Sending low-risk offenders to these programs actually backfires. What appears to happen is that they meet higher risk offenders and take on habits they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. They’ll often start to trip up, miss probation appointments, and end up being sent back to prison for technical violations at a higher rate than if they had just been left alone. The opposite is true of higher-risk offenders.  If we get them in the right type and intensity of programs that target their specific risk factors, we can cut recidivism by 25 to 30 percent. So the risk/needs assessment tools help make sure that the right programs are being used for the right people. And policymakers are starting to recognize that the tools can be very powerful in helping the state triage its scarce resources and have a greater effect on public safety.

Q: Which states are leading the way in using tools to reduce the prison return rate?

A: Our recent report, State of Recidivism, highlights successful efforts in three states—Oregon, Michigan, and Missouri. For example, in less than ten years, Michigan has shrunk its inmate population by 12 percent and closed more than 20 correctional facilities, in large part due to the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative, which was piloted in 2003 and expanded state-wide in 2008. When inmates enter prison they are given an assessment that evaluates their risks, needs, and strengths. This evaluation is used to drive an individualized case plan that follows the inmate until he or she is released. Prior to parole, offenders are transferred to a re-entry facility and given a transition plan. The initiative also provides community supervision officers clear policies on violations that can be addressed without sending someone back to state prison.

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October 6, 2011
Jennifer Laudano | 202.540.6321
Public Safety Performance Project
Public Safety