Taking swift, certain, and measured actions against probation violations. Project HOPE/MORR (Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement / Massachusetts Offender Recidivism Reduction) aims to reduce recidivism rates of high-risk probationers by taking a swift, no-tolerance response to any kind of probation violation.

Created by Judge Steven Alm in Hawaii, Massachusetts aims to replicate Hawaii's successful formula, shown in one 2009 study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to reduce recidivism by 55%. The same study found that Hawaii's HOPE probationers were 72% less likely to use drugs and 61% less likely to skip their appointments with their probation officer.

But can this success be replicated 5,000 miles away in Massachusetts?

Now in its third year of federal funding in Essex County, and its first year as a state-funded pilot in Worcester, HOPE/MORR, with its “swift, certain, and moderate” sentencing guidelines for high-risk probationers, requires strict fidelity to the program’s requirements. It is a highly coordinated effort between the courts, Probation, and local criminal justice partners. The projects in Salem and Worcester are randomized control trials where the eligible high-risk probationers are randomly assigned to Project HOPE/MORR or to standard probation supervision. This type of research design is considered the gold standard.  

Immediate accountability. Probationers in HOPE/MORR go to a warning hearing at the beginning of the program. The judge explains the consequences for not following the conditions of their probation. There is a strict “no excuses” policy for missed meetings with probation officers, and intensive random drug testing. Judges urge probationers to think of “the next best thing” if they make a mistake, encouraging them to come clean with their probation officers when slip-ups occur.

“The initial warning hearing is crucial,” says Worcester District Court Judge David Despotopulos. “We tell probationers: 'if you’re late, if you have a dirty drug test, you’re going to jail.' The beginning of the probation period is when probationers are most likely to slip up. But people find out quickly that we mean business, and from what I can tell, it’s having an effect on them.”

Worcester District Court First Justice Paul Loconto agrees that the warning hearing sets the tone. “I’m surprised we don’t see more violations, especially because we test the HOPE/MORR probationers frequently. There’s little wriggle room,” says Judge Loconto. “The warning hearing is when we tell them that they have to make good choices – or else they will be right back in front of us in court, or worse, they’re looking at jail time.”

While recidivism data for HOPE/MORR is being compiled, probation officers have seen a real difference in behavior since the federally-funded program launched in Salem in October 2012. 

“Overall, we’re seeing more compliance,” says Quiana Hobson, Project Coordinator for Essex County HOPE/MORR in Salem. “For the first time ever, we’re actually hearing probationers calling out, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ in the hallway, because being late to your appointment with your probation officer results in sanctions. To see that type of change in behavior is a major shift for us.”

Sheila Flanagan, HOPE/MORR Project Coordinator for Worcester, has also observed more negative drug tests, and less court activity overall for those in the program. She notes that HOPE/MORR probationers who have had detention hearings are “very open and honest, and that’s a big change. They’ll say to the judge, ‘I knew this was going to happen and you were going send me to the House of Correction for two nights because I messed up.’ There’s now an expectation that there will be immediate consequences,” she says.

Quick turnaround is key. In terms of resources and labor, HOPE/MORR is intensive. Sanctions must be swift and consistent. The Essex County Superior Court aims for a 3-day turnaround from the date of the detected violation until the scheduled court appearance and sanction. While those involved with implementing HOPE/MORR agree that there is more work required upfront to launch the program and at the start of someone’s sentence, they also note that the program is less expensive overall than the costs associated with incarceration.

Does HOPE/MORR work? Initial data suggest that the anecdotal observations shared above indicate the program’s promise. While the final recidivism analysis from the external researchers is expected this fall, interim data collected from April to August 2015 show positive drug test rates ranging from 5.4% in Worcester to 7.7% in Salem. These are encouraging results, given typical positive drug test rates of 17-20% among all probationers, and high-risk cases would typically test positive at even higher rates.

“We see this program as the future of probation supervision for high-risk offenders – about a third of our probation population,” says Probation Commissioner Edward Dolan. “What we’ve seen from the two pilots so far is a high degree of compliance with conditions. We view HOPE/MORR as a strong complement to drug courts. The program has enabled us to create a behavioral filter: if you can’t succeed with the swift, sure and measured sanctions approach of HOPE, particularly with regard to substance use, then drug court would be the right next step. The two are complementary and help us set the right treatment dosage, intensity and duration based on observed behavior.  In that sense, it’s a more efficient and effective use of our resources.”

Superior Court Judge John Lu, who leads HOPE/MORR in Salem with District Court Judge Robert Brennan, is waiting to see the final data before making any predictions on the program's effectiveness in Massachusetts. "This is a very difficult, high-stakes business," says Judge Lu. "I will say that through the process of implementing Salem HOPE/MORR, we have created a cross agency innovation group that executes criminal justice policy in a highly disciplined and professional manner. Whether or not the test group of HOPE/MORR probationers performs better than the control group experiencing ‘probation as usual,’ we have learned something about ourselves and our role as innovators within the justice system."

Next steps. The evaluation team of consultants and academic researchers from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) should issue findings this fall. The Trial Court will use the study results to determine how to best expand HOPE/MORR throughout the state in FY16, with the active involvement of Probation and the District and Superior Courts.

"We have very strong data with regard to compliance with conditions.We’re waiting for the NIJ results to measure the program’s impact on recividism,” says Commissioner Dolan. “The next piece we need to consider relates to the work that the courts are focusing on now: what are the right conditions of probation. Designing conditions becomes all the more important, a critical component in an evidenced based method to reduce recividism.”