Projecting the Impacts of a Coerced Abstinence Probation Modification Program in North Carolina
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY POLICY QUESTION (Page 7) The objective of this paper is to examine whether or not the North Carolina Department of Corrections should adopt a coerced abstinence model of probation modification similar to the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program that was piloted in Honolulu in 2004. HOPE appears to be phenomenally successful at reducing recidivism among drug-involved probationers. Reducing new crimes and probation violations among this sub-set of high-risk probationers in North Carolina could have substantial impacts on public safety and corrections spending. BACKGROUND (Page 7) The probation system in America, widely used as a cheaper and less severe alternative to incarceration for qualifying criminal offenders, is also widely considered to be ineffective at preventing new crimes. Probationers frequently re-offend which fails to meet the goals of probation, as defined by the American Probation and Parole Association: “to protect society and promote law-abiding behavior.” Some characteristics of the probation system may contribute to the high rate of recidivism. Because resources are often strained and probation officers are often over-burdened with caseloads, it becomes virtually impossible to sanction every probation violation. When probationers are sanctioned, for violations such as missed appointments or failed drug tests, punishments are often delayed and come after the accumulation of multiple violations. This being the case, offenders likely perceive the risks of violating probation as very low. A low risk perception, coupled with the tendency for crime to attract impulsive and reckless individuals, often leads to the choice to violate the terms of probation. Crime, as well as reckless, impulsive behavior, is also strongly linked to drug use. This link is backed up by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which reports that about 30% of probationers in the United States are “current” drug users, compared to only 8.3% of the general population of American adults. Individuals using drugs are more likely to engage in crime either while under the influence of drugs, or for the purpose of getting money to buy drugs. As such, it stands to reason that reducing drug use will lead to a reduction in crime. Several programs in the United States have recently sought to address these shortcomings in the probation system and alter the underlying behavioral tendencies that lead to continued drug use and other probation violations. These programs focus around “swift and certain” sanctions for each probation violation. Rather than having a low risk of a severe sanction, they offer a high risk of a moderate sanction per violation. Examples of programs that address the link between drug use, impulsiveness, and crime include Intensive Supervision Probation, 24/7 Sobriety, drug courts, and coerced abstinence—typified by the HOPE program. This paper examines what might happen in North Carolina if the Department of Corrections adopted a coerced abstinence, HOPE-style program. DATA AND MEASUREMENT (Page 15) Data used to predict the impact that coerced abstinence might have in North Carolina come from published reports on the evaluation of HOPE in Hawaii and from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. HOPE data come from a randomized controlled trial of the program done in 2007 that followed 493 probationers over a 12-month span of time starting in 2007. The North Carolina Sentencing Commission followed all 60,824 offenders released from prison or placed on probation in FY 2005/2006. This included 41,091 probationers, 12,622 of whom were labeled by the courts as being somehow “drug-involved.” Both datasets report on outcomes of interest, such as the probation revocation rate, re-arrest rate, incarceration, and continued drug use. They also report on background information that is useful for drawing comparisons between probationers in Hawaii and North Carolina, such as age, gender, race, prior criminal history, and risk assessment. PREDICTING THE IMPACT IN NORTH CAROLINA (Page 21) There are numerous limitations to attempting to predict the impacts of a HOPE-style program in North Carolina. Among these are latent background differences between the probationer populations in Hawaii and North Carolina, such as age, race, and criminal background. Additionally, the geographic, political, cultural, and other differences between states impact how such a program might work in different jurisdictions. Also, there are differences in how researchers tracked data between states. For example, Hawaii and North Carolina use different assessments to determine the risk of recidivism, and the available measures of prior criminal history, drug use, and other factors are tracked differently between states. Acknowledging the limitations in making predictions, it is possible to make tentative estimates of the potential impact of a coerced abstinence program on drug-involved offenders in North Carolina. Outcomes potentially include: • A 50% drop in technical probation revocations over 12 months. • A 55% reduction in the re-arrest rate of probationers over 12 months. • Up to a 91% reduction in drug crimes committed by drug-involved probationers in the first year of probation, or a 38% reduction in drug-offenses over all probationers. • Substantially fewer jail days served and reduced rates of incarceration among the treatment population. • Improved public safety. POLICY ANALYSIS (Page 28) Even though preliminary research suggests that coerced abstinence programs are successful at reducing recidivism and drug use among probationers, such a policy may face many obstacles. First, coerced abstinence is founded on principles of behavioral economics and cognitive psychology, which may make it difficult to explain to policy makers and the public. This lack of understanding may breed skepticism of the program. Coerced abstinence might also offend two important groups of people: drug treatment advocates and probation officers. HOPE and similar programs seem to suggest that simple incentives can lead to dramatic reductions in substance abuse without any therapeutic medical treatment. Thus, it may be viewed as ‘competition’ to traditional, medical methods of addiction treatment. Also, if coerced abstinence does not achieve the total buy-in of probation officers, they are unlikely to cooperate with the implementation of such a program. Unless sanctions are applied to each and every probation violation, a coerced abstinence system cannot work. Getting probation officers on board with such a program may be difficult, however, because of the perceived workload. The primary reason so many probation violations currently go unpunished is because of severe resource strains on probation departments. It would simply be too time consuming to sanction every violation. This problem must be addressed in order to achieve the cooperation of probation officers. Additionally, there is the question of how well a coerced abstinence program works in the long-term. Existing research on the topic is favorable, but limited in scope. It may be difficult to win popular support for a program with unknown long-term consequences. HOPE and other ongoing coerced abstinence program evaluations need to be watched carefully in the coming years in order to determine how well they work over longer periods of time. IMPLEMENTATION (Page 29) Successful implementation of a HOPE-style program in North Carolina requires certain program elements, broad-based stakeholder buy-in, and effective leadership. Fortunately, the RCT of HOPE included a process evaluation that addressed how each of these objectives was achieved in Honolulu. The necessary program elements, according to researchers include monitoring, guaranteed sanctions, a clear set of rules, an initial warning hearing, prompt hearings, drug treatment for those who continue to fail drug tests, and the capacity to pursue those who fail to appear for probation meetings. These program elements, combined with a visible public champion or leader to maintain support for such a program, are essential to successful implementation. Myriad stakeholders are also necessary to ensure success. Probation officers, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, court staff, sheriffs, and probationers themselves must all agree to cooperate with the terms of a coerced abstinence program in order for it to work. Any inconsistency will erode the perception of guaranteed sanctions.
DepartmentThe Sanford School of Public Policy
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