Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a series of articles on projects underway in the state courts to develop new approaches to providing justice in new, more efficient and effective ways. Some of these innovations derive from the Innovation Commission that developed the Circuit Court, others are projects that have been based in local courts and have not received as much attention. Kristen Senz is a freelance writer who has reported on several articles for the Bar News.
One of the primary functions of the corrections system has always been to change or "correct" offender behavior, to prevent recidivism. But until recently, offender probation has generally failed to include swift and certain sanctions that are logically connected to probation violations, which often leads to the continuation or worsening of offending behavior.
Probation officers in New Hampshire, strapped with caseloads three times larger than the national average, have historically allowed probationers several chances to avoid incarceration after violating the terms of their probation, says Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau.
"The officers think they’re helping probationers by giving them a chance, when actually they’re not," she said.
By the time probation violation hearings are scheduled in superior court, typically up to six weeks after a string of violations, many probationers -- primarily those with substance abuse problems -- give up any hope of staying out of jail or prison.
"Their mentality is, ‘I’m already in trouble, so I might as well keep on using,’" said Nadeau.
New Hope, an intense probation supervision program that is being piloted in Rockingham, Merrimack and Carroll counties with groups of 10-15 probationers, seeks to shift offender probation to a behavior modification model, and by many accounts, it’s working.
Pioneered by Nadeau in Rockingham County about two years ago, New Hope is modeled after a similar program in Hawaii known as HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement). It involves frequent interaction with a probation officer and three random drug screenings per week. A color-coded system requires probationers to call the county jail every day to learn the color selected that day. When their color comes up, they must report to the jail for an immediate drug test. If they fail to show up or test positive, a hearing is scheduled within 48 hours. The first violation results in immediate incarceration for one or two days. The second puts a probationer behind bars for three or four days, and so on.
"My clerk thought I was crazy, because she thought, ‘I’m going to be scheduling these hearings every other day,’" Nadeau said.
At first, that was true, and even Nadeau says she thought, "What have I done?" Gradually, though, the frequency of the hearings tapered off. "After two or three months, they really stopped violating," she said.
The Rockingham County Public Defenders Office welcomed the speedier hearings, says Deanna Campbell, managing attorney for the NH Public Defender office in Stratham.
"The sanctions are swift, but the good news is, we get (defendants) in the court much quicker, and their sanctions are much less than on regular probation," said Campbell, who handles all the New Hope cases in Rockingham County. "Ironically, it’s probation the way, ideally, everyone would like probation to work, if it were fully staffed."
New Hope probationers require more hearings than regular probationers, and that means more work for probation officers and attorneys. However, Deputy Rockingham County Attorney Tom Reid points out that the hearings are shorter and less labor-intensive than the fully contested hearings typical of regular probation violation cases, which usually involve significant sanctions. Reid agrees the program has proven effective in changing offender behavior and said it has also reduced costs associated with jail beds for probation violators.
"We can say that this has saved significant money," Reid said, but the math is a little "fuzzy," because it’s always hard to quantify expenses that are prevented.
"It’s hard to quantify, but (New Hope is) really trying to achieve the goals we’re supposed to achieve in corrections — correcting behavior."
Probationers selected for participation in New Hope are at high risk for violating probation. Often, they are substance abusers, but not full-blown addicts considered too far-gone to change. Al Saunders was one of them.
"It’s the greatest thing ever," the 38-year-old Raymond resident said of New Hope. "It really helped me… I failed miserably in the beginning, but that’s when it helps. That’s when I said, ‘Look, I’ve had enough of this. How many chances is the judge going to give me before they send me to the prison for a long time?’"
Saunders was addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin, and after his conviction on a drug charge, he spent six months on regular probation, during which time, he says, he scheduled his drug use around his pre-scheduled urine screenings. But since his graduation from the New Hope program, Saunders says he hasn’t used illegal drugs in 18 months, with the help of prescription Suboxone to treat his opiate addiction. Now, he’s back to working a full-time job.
"I got a chance, and I took the ball and ran with it," said Saunders. "Without that, I’d be in prison right now."
Implementation and acceptance of New Hope has required a cultural shift within New Hampshire’s criminal justice system, Nadeau said, but careful studies of program outcomes are proving its effectiveness, when compared with regular probation.
Reid said he credits New Hampshire Commissioner of Corrections Bill Wrenn with making the program possible by assigning a probation officer to handle New Hope cases. Reid added that he would support further expansion of the program, because it’s a tool that enables prosecutors to argue for intermediate sanctions.
"What we’re trying to do is intervene before it spirals into something worse, and we need to have options," he said.
Counties adopting the program are doing so on a voluntary basis, due to limited probation resources. Nadeau said she’s hopeful that more federal funds could become available for states implementing the program. In the meantime, she’s working on keeping the program consistent across the counties that are implementing it and promoting it in others.
"My goal is, even if we can do it on a low scale in each of the counties and show that it works, that in time it will persuade the leaders in Concord," she said.