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Tough Love

On Oahu there are 8,277 people on probation for felonies. The state’s probation system had been unsuccessful in getting probationers to become responsible citizens—until a revolutionary program called HOPE came along.


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Judge Steven Alm may not hold the whole world in his hands, but he does give hope to many
probationers on Oahu.

Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Being on probation didn’t mean jack to Lori Hendrickson. She’s been convicted of three felonies and in 2006 was sentenced to probation. Hendrickson has lost count of the number of times she’s spent the night at the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC). She started using prescription narcotics and methamphetamine, better known as ice, when she was 9. “I had no desire of stopping,” says the 51-year-old with short, spiky hair and tattoos on her neck and hands. “I had injuries from drugs, I tried to kill myself.” Her probation officer (PO), police officers and even her family thought she was a lost cause.

Probation is an alternative to prison, but, for many struggling individuals, the system—both in Hawaii and on the Mainland—lacks the level of supervision and enforcement they need. The majority of probationers on Oahu are drug offenders; many are sex and domestic-violence offenders. In traditional probation, men and women are scheduled to meet with their PO at least once a month. Drug offenders must also take a drug test at least once a month, but they know well ahead of time when they will be tested. Even so, many test positive. Other probationers skip appointments with their PO, or quickly relapse after completing sex or drug treatment. Some commit new crimes. For many, probation is not taken seriously, because their violations are not taken seriously.

Do you know the difference?

Probation is an alternative to a prison sentence. For example, instead of a five-year prison sentence, offenders may be sentenced to five years’ probation.

Parole is for those who are released early from prison because of good behavior.

Jails are designed to hold individuals awaiting trial or serving short sentences, such as when a probationer in HOPE violates.

Prisons are operated by state governments and hold individuals convicted of crimes.

“There would be multiple violations before any action [was taken]; 10 or 15 violations before the PO finally recommended bringing them back into court. I think the culture was that we have to give the offenders enough chances to keep screwing up and we’ll have a good case to argue for the judge to send them to prison,” explains First Circuit Judge Steven Alm, who has been a judge for nine years and was previously the U.S. attorney for Hawaii.

“Criminality would increase in the old probation system because of the long lag time between action and consequence,” adds Mason Henderson, the director of the Sand Island Treatment Center, a two-year residential drug and behavioral rehabilitation center. Henderson explains that many probationers had the system pegged. They knew that, for most violations, nothing would happen. Eventually they would be taken back to court, and have their probation extended another five years, or it would be revoked altogether and they would go to prison—for a felony, at least a five-year sentence.

Some POs felt that their hands were tied in trying to help the probationers, or clients, as they call them, in their case-loads. Ty Tamasaka is a senior PO in the Adult Client Services’ sex-offender unit and deals with high-risk probationers convicted of sex-offense-related crimes. He’s been a PO for seven years and used to work in Hilo. “With regular probation, when someone violates, it would take sometimes a half a year to get a new felony charge and issue a warrant for their arrest,” he says. There were times he couldn’t sleep at night wondering if his clients were assaulting new victims or hurting previous ones.

Tired of watching traditional probation methods fail, Judge Steven Alm gathered a team that created a new program, aptly called HOPE.

Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

A New Beginning

Alm sits behind his desk in his chambers at Kaahumanu Hale on Punchbowl Street. Stacks of paper and piles of case files surround him. A bell in the building’s PA system sounds, reminding him that court will begin at 8:30 a.m. He slides on his black robe, zips it up and slips out the side door, ready to take on the day’s schedule of probation hearings.

“I can guarantee you that everyone in this courtroom wants you to succeed,” he begins. The men and women who pass through the almost claustrophobically small courtroom with retro orange chairs might not know this, but Alm says this to every person on probation who stands before him. And he means it. So sincerely, in fact, that he created and implemented an innovative probation program on Oahu that shakes up the old model of probation.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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