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Changing Behavior Without Treatment? Provocative Results from Hawaii
by JEFFREY A. BUTTS PH.D.

adolescent-substance-abuse-treatment-different-approach-book-coverPeople who are truly chemically dependent and drug addicted often require treatment to change their behavior, but not all offenders (especially juvenile offenders) are truly drug dependent. We need effective ways to help them change their behavor too. 

What if youthful offenders were guaranteed to receive a short, mild sanction with each and every violation of their court-ordered probation? Such a program would be far cheaper than drug treatment, but would it change behavior? 
 
In an important new book, Mark Kleiman describes the results of the HOPE experiment that has been underway in Hawaii for several years. The criminal court in Honolulu decided to shift the balance of punishment with drug-involved offenders. Rather than putting everyone through an extended, revolving-door routine of ineffective probation, false threats, and an occasional but expensive prison sentence, the court embarked on a radical experiment.
 
Beginning with just 34 offenders, the court made a simple and clear promise: Anyone who missed an appointment with their probation officer, violated probation in any way, or had a dirty drug test went immediately to jail -- guaranteed. The sentence, however, was a couple of days at most. The court didn't even have to hold a hearing to revoke probation, just modify the terms to include a short stay in jail.
 
The court effectively shifted the focus of punishment, from rare and severe, to certain and swift.
 
The basic idea is hardly new.
 
According to Kleiman in an exerpt just published in the Washington Monthly:

A solid body of social science and criminological research dating back to the eighteenth century tells us that behavior can be changed by punishment that is certain and swift even if it is not severe. Conversely, if punishments for wrongdoing are sporadic and delayed, increasing severity has only modest impact. That’s why quintupling the prison and jail population has failed to get us back to the crime rates of the early 1960s. ... The importance of swift and predictable consequences is plain common sense, understood by every parent. But that lesson has not been incorporated into our corrections system.

In his book, Kleiman describes what happened in Honolulu after the experiment began:

Everyone braced for a flood of missed and failed tests and the consequent sanctions hearings. But then something strange happened: in the first two weeks, only five of the thirty-four broke the rules. The overall rate of missed and failed drug tests dropped by more than 80 percent.

Eventually, probation revocations were cut by two-thirds. The program reduced probation workloads so much that the court was able to quadruple the size of  the program.
 
Some readers may find Kleiman's book disturbing as it challenges many of the tenets of the drug treatment profession. Before reacting, however, we should consider the merits of the idea and its potential application in the juvenile system. For example, what if a program for juveniles didn't use secure detention as the immediate sanction, but something else like community service or some type of after-school supervision? Could we acheive similar results with the non-dependent portion of youthful drug offenders, while reserving scarce treatment resources for more seriously involved youth? Seems worth a discussion at least...   

Could we achieve similar results with the non-dependent portion of youthful drug offenders, while reserving scarce treatment resources for more seriously involved youth? Good question. Treatment studies have been notorious for their poor research design and their over-zealous exhortation of treatment effectiveness. I am reminded of one study of school-based probation services. Youngsters who avoided contact with the probation officer had lower levels of recidivism than youngsters who had daily contact with the probation officer—and not just because of behavioral problems. It is also interesting to discuss how many youngsters cease delinquent behavior in spite of treatment and not because of treatment. In any typical probation caseload, many youngsters do not have any further contact with the juvenile court. Is this because of the intervention or is it because of other factors?