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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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Cheryl Inouye is section administrator of high-risk probation units and has been involved with HOPE since the beginning.

Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

“Not knowing when I’ll get called helps me stay clean,” says 24-year-old probationer Shanghai Ah Cheung. She has been drug-free for a little more than a year and has graduated to White 1, which means she gets tested once or twice a month.

Amazingly, many people who know they will test positive come in regardless. They know that, whether they show up or not, they will most likely be arrested. “In HOPE, there’s no escape,” says Ornellas. “When Judge Alm says ‘swift and sure,’ it is swift and sure.”

“The results have wildly exceeded expectations,” says Paul Perrone, chief of research and statistics for the department of the state attorney general. Perrone has been studying the program since it started. He and his team track the number of probationers going in and out of HOPE, record the types of violations probationers have and the number of new crimes they commit, as well as conduct PO surveys. “Our data shows that HOPE works remarkably well.”

The program eventually expanded into 10 courtrooms, but now the majority of the cases are back in Alm’s court. This way, there is more consistency with sentencing, and it’s easier for deputy public defenders and prosecutors to have the hearings in one courtroom. “But by conducting HOPE across the board with other judges, it proved that it wasn’t Judge Alm alone who made the difference,” says Inouye. Perrone’s office tracked the conduct of probationers assigned to each judge; probationers performed equally well in each courtroom. 

The state also recently allocated funding to employ one full-time deputy public defender and one full-time deputy prosecutor to handle HOPE cases. Kevin Takata, the senior deputy prosecuting attorney, says it will make the short-notice court hearings easier to attend. “[In HOPE] you have to come down to court at a moment’s notice and often our schedules don’t allow for that.”

HOPE is in the Air

Since the program’s inception, the number of people in HOPE has grown from 34 to 1,518. Of that number, 1,350 are on probation for felonies. “We’re trying to get the folks that have the most problems,” says Alm. He adds that every other week new people are being enrolled into HOPE during the program’s group warning hearings, at which Alm explains the program to offenders; many end up appreciating the program later.

“Regular probation will give you the rope to hang yourself, give you the slack. There’s no slack in HOPE,” says Robert Pestana Jr., a HOPE probationer in Tamasaka’s sex-offender unit.

“Judge Alm and Kathi had the trust and faith in me that I didn’t have [in myself],” adds Hendrickson, who is in her final year on probation. She says her biggest fear is finishing her sentence and no longer having the structure of HOPE. “I don’t want to get off HOPE. I tell Kathi I’m still going to call her!”

The Mainland has taken notice of the program’s success. Alm has positioned himself not only as the state’s strongest advocate for HOPE, but its spokesperson to other states. He met with Nevada officials and the state recently started its own nontraditional probation program. Oregon and Alaska want to start their own programs this summer.

“What struck me was the swift and certain aspect,” says Carmen Gutierrez, the special assistant to the commissioner for the Alaska department of corrections. “I found no other program that was producing these kinds of results.” Gutierrez and other Alaska officials came to Oahu in April and met with their counterparts involved in HOPE to get a first-hand look at how the program operates.

Alm even took the program to Washington, D.C., in May and met with Eric Holder Jr., the U.S. attorney general. Alm also testified in support of a Congressional bill introduced last November to create 20 new probation pilots across the country using federal funds. He and other Hawaii officials will be on hand for training if it passes. At home, he is dedicated to expanding HOPE to the Neighbor Islands. Currently, there are 108 HOPE probationers on Maui. The Legislature is also considering funding a pilot project similar to HOPE for people on parole on Oahu.

While HOPE is obviously a more effective program than regular probation, it is not perfect. “The theory and the program itself are very good, but you have to be careful of who should be admitted into HOPE,” says Takata. “HOPE is not a substitute for incarceration.” Last year, explains Takata, two people in the program were charged with murder. “They should have been in prison.”

But, says Perrone, “The only way to avoid that is to take every person convicted of a crime and execute them, banish them or [give them] life time imprisonment. New crimes are going to be committed.”

Many POs, state officials and even probationers would like to see HOPE become standard probation in the state. “There’s not one bad thing I can think of about this program,” says Ornellas. “Probation is a gift, not a privilege. And these conditions aren’t that hard.” HOPE not only benefits the people in it, but the POs who work with them, the prison system and the community at large.

Hendrickson is using her last year in HOPE to provide support for other probationers in the program. Afterward she wants to get her own place and work on getting her high school GED. “For a long time I had nothing,” she says. “I don’t want to ever go back to that. HOPE gave me positive thinking.” Alm was right, she adds; he did want her to succeed. And his program helped her do just that.   


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Honolulu Magazine February 2020
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