From meth addict to businessman: bread maker's story highlights policy agenda aimed at changing lives

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1 2012 6:50 p.m. MST

After Clinton left office, the George W. Bush administration continued funding research projects Travis and Reno had proposed. Then came a moment no one expected and few involved will forget. It occurred in 2004, as Dave Dahl prepared to leave prison for the fourth time.

“America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life,” said President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address.

“We know from long experience that if released inmates can’t find work or a home,” Bush said, “they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison.” He proposed a $300 million initiative for projects improving the odds of returning prisoners.

“It was stunning from any president, let alone from a conservative Republican, ” Travis said. “And then to announce what became the Second Chance Act as a State of the Union initiative was remarkable.”

“Clearly it was in part about his own personal journey,” said Lavigne, referring to Bush’s successful battle with alcoholism. “And I think in part it was his faith that attracted him to the topic.”

The result was a rare moment of bipartisanship when Congress in 2007 passed the Second Chance Act to fund programs aimed at “safe and successful reintegration.”

Spurred by federal funding and the need to control their own costs, states began experimenting with alternatives, and by 2012, more than half the states had comprehensive “justice reinvestment” programs, which aimed to shift resources from incarceration toward treatment and prevention.

HOPE in Hawaii

But not everyone was waiting for a shove from above. Some of the most startling innovations emerged at the ground level. Out in Hawaii, for example, Judge Steven Alm realized shortly after he was appointed to the bench in 2001 that the incentives and signals in the probation system were all wrong.

Probationers and probation officers functioned in a murky world, Alm said. If probationers missed an appointment or failed a drug test, they would be warned, warned and warned again — until problems got big and the offender went to prison. Probation officers lacked flexible tools. “A judge years ago said of regular probation,” Alm said, “‘I can send them to prison or I can send them to the beach.’”

So in 2004 he launched his own program. “I thought to myself, 'this is crazy,'” Alm said, “'There has be a better way to change offender behavior.'"

Alm’s alternative, which he dubbed the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, was based on how he was raised and how he raised his own child. “If you don’t have consequences for failure, you are going to get more failure,” Alm said.

Addicts in the HOPE program are warned at the outset that there is no margin for error. They must call a drug-test hotline every weekday and are randomly called in, based on color-coded groups. If they fail to show up, they automatically spend three days in jail, with no discussion and no excuses. Not even a doctor’s note gets them off the hook. The only excuse is if they are actually in the hospital. “Your color is going to come up once or twice a week when you start, and at least six times a month,” Alm said. “You can guess for awhile, but you’re going to get caught.”

Probationers who succeed never see the judge again, while those who fail a test automatically go to jail for a brief stay. “We have it set up so they get consequences. But it’s swift, it’s certain and it’s proportionate.”

Swift, certain, small

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