Can criminals change? A look at Hawaii’s groundbreaking HOPE program

Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) is a program that started in Hawaii 12 years ago and has spread across the nation.

It has its success stories, and 31 states have modeled a probation program after HOPE.

But critics say there are too many people in the program to run it effectively, and it’s jeopardizing public safety.

KHON2’s weekly segment “Hawaii’s Most Wanted” often features criminals who are wanted for violating the terms of HOPE Probation.

Compared to regular probation, HOPE has more supervision, immediate consequences for violations, but also incentives for following the terms.

Dennis Tamura has a new lease on life, thanks in large part to HOPE. He was a heroin addict for more than 40 years, lived on the streets of Chinatown, and would shoplift to support his drug habit.

“I used to go into Liberty House and fill up a bag every day and take over $1,000 worth of merchandise,” Tamura said.

Despite being in and out of prison for most of his life, in 2011 he was given a final chance to turn his life around.

“HOPE Probation helped me by realizing there’s consequences,” Tamura said.

Circuit Court Judge Steven Alm created HOPE Probation in 2004. KHON2 sat in on a hearing, during which Alm laid down the rules to a group of people just entering HOPE.

Among them was former Sacred Hearts Academy teacher William Plourde, who just finished serving one year in jail for sex assault, and now enters HOPE Probation as part of his plea deal.

“Just getting probation to begin with is kind of an act of mercy,” Alm said.

Sex offenders are automatically put on HOPE Probation, and people convicted of thefts, burglaries, and drug offenses also end up in this program.

“It’s not prison or HOPE, it’s prison or probation, and then if they’re on probation, should we watch them in HOPE or watch them on probation as usual,” Alm said.

About one in four probationers end up in HOPE.

They’re required to take frequent drug tests. If they fail to take a drug test, or test positive, they’re given immediate jail time, whether it’s half a day, a couple days, or a couple weeks.

If they don’t show up at a court hearing, a bench warrant is issued for their arrest.

“If you can go two years without a violation, I’ll terminate your probation,” Alm said during the court hearing.

Alm says for the most part, people in HOPE tend to follow the rules.

“People in HOPE are getting arrested for new crimes 20 percent less often than people on probation as usual, and they’re going to prison — Halawa or Women’s (Community Correctional Center) — half as often,” Alm said. “So it is one of those rare programs that has almost no enemies, because it helps everybody. The prosecutors tend to like it because there’s accountability.”

Turns out that’s not true. Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro is not a fan of HOPE Probation.

“HOPE Probation does not provide consequences when there needs to be, and HOPE Probation on some of the cases have jeopardized public safety,” Kaneshiro said.

Kaneshiro cited a recent example. Bobby Young-Townsend was on HOPE Probation last month when he was arrested for allegedly setting his girlfriend on fire in Kahaluu.

“Now you tell me, how effective is that system? All it does is keep people out of prison and that’s the whole gist of this HOPE Probation,” Kaneshiro said.

Kaneshiro also says it’s a waste of time for police, who have to repeatedly go out and arrest HOPE probation violators.

Currently, there are 2035 people in HOPE.

“I think HOPE Probation should be downsized for better supervision,” Kaneshiro said. “Right now, they don’t really supervise. They just have a person test for drugs, and if they test positive, they bring them in. But you have to understand, some of the people who are on HOPE Probation do not have drug problems, so they’re not going to test positive for drugs.”

Kaneshiro showed KHON2 a lengthy list of people who’ve repeatedly violated the terms of HOPE Probation.

KHON2 asked Alm: “How many times can you violate the terms of HOPE Probation before you’re given more severe penalties?”

“That’s a good question. They’re always going to get a jail sanction every single time,” Alm said. “But as I’ve done this longer and realized how hard it is to stop using drugs, it’s like if the probationer is going to keep trying, I will keep working with him. So if they commit a new crime, they’re going to go to prison.”

KHON2 asked Kaneshiro: “Do you see any positives with HOPE Probation?”

“Yeah, there are some positives. There are some people on HOPE Probation who would benefit from being on probation,” he said.

Tamura is one of those people. It’s been three years since he exited HOPE Probation, and since then, he went back to school, got his associate degree from Leeward Community College, is now a mentor at church, and helps take care of his mother.

“I just got to not waste any time and just do good things, try to help people,” Tamura said.

Tamura says he owes much of it to the program that gave him hope.

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