Players in the justice system in Lompoc — courts, police, the probation office, prosecutors and defense lawyers —are teaming up in an experimental program aimed at breaking the predictable cycle of repeat offenders.
Five men and women convicted of drug and alcohol offenses, and theft, were some of the first chosen to participate last week in the program, called Hope. The program, which originated in Hawaii, will reward repeat criminal offenders with reduced sentences for following a rigorous routine of probation compliance, but punish those who don’t comply with a quick return to jail.
The program received the support of Judge James Iwasko, who explained the rules to the first group. The judge discarded his black robe in favor of casual clothes when he greeted the participants in his courtroom at the Lompoc branch of the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse. He addressed them a few feet from the jury box rather than the podium to highlight that this wasn’t like any of the previous court hearings they had been called to.
Iwasko told the men and women that they were chosen not because of their merits, but they were identified as likely to be incarcerated in the future.
“The reason why you are here is because you’ve been selected for past non-compliant behavior and not making probation,” he told them.
Iwasko told them all they had to do was follow the rules of probation and they wouldn’t have to come to the courtroom anymore — except in cases where sentencing would be reduced. But those that did not comply with probation terms would be reprimanded quickly.
One of the five individuals selected did not attend the mandatory meeting. A warrant would be signed for that person’s immediate incarceration.
“There are no reasons for non-compliant behavior,” Iwasko said.
Iwasko, the Office of the Public Defender, the Lompoc Police Department, the County of Santa Barbara District Attorney and Probation Department are all participating in the program. UC Santa Barbara will also be examining data from the pilot Hope program.
Currently, there can be numerous steps that need to take place before someone who fails to follow probation can be sentenced back to jail
“It’s not instant accountability but delayed justice,” Iwasko said.
Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program has been adopted in cities across the country since its creation in 2004. The central concept was to provide swift, predictable and immediate sanctions for failing terms of probation.
Failure to take a random drug test, for example, could lead to a short but immediate stint in jail. Additional probation violations would follow with longer jail terms.
Those in the program would have to call a hotline number on a daily basis to know if they have to come to meet with probation. Complying with the rules of the program would result in a reduced prison sentence.
According to the Friends of HOPE Probation website, enacting immediate punishment has lead to positive life-changing behavior from repeat criminal offenders. Over an unspecified time period, the number of positive drug tests has been reduced 86 percent and missed probation appointments reduced by 80 percent, according to the website. Arrest for new crimes has also been reduced by more than 50 percent.
Tanja Heitman, deputy chief probation officer, said that the goal of the program is for repeat offenders to serve less jail time, have fewer new criminal arrests, use less drugs, and become better with compliance on probation terms.
One of the repeat offenders, identified as Lisa, said “I can’t find work and I am bored so that’s why I relapse. That is the resource I need.”
Heitman said Lisa would be provided the support she needed over the course of a rigorous routine of scheduled and random probation check-ins.
“These check-ins will guarantee other resources she might need like employment resources,” Heitman said.
Over the next six months, Heitman said, the Probation Department could have 25 repeat offenders brought into the Hope program. The program would not be open to domestic or sex offenders. she said.
She said she did not anticipate any additional staffing or cost associated with the program in the short term.
Lompoc was selected because the program works best when there is only one judge in town, which can apply consistent terms to all offenders. Heitman said the program is supported by all law enforcement branches, she said.
“It’s a monumental thing when both the district attorney and public defenders willing to try.”