Note: This article originally appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram on April 11, 2012.
Imagine a misbehaving child, one who has been sternly told not to do something but does it anyway.
A parent has two options: Give the child a swift and certain punishment, or warn the child a second time, and then a third, and then four or five more times until finally delivering sometimes brutally harsh punishment.
Judge Mollee Westfall of Tarrant County understands that the first option makes more sense.
“If your children thought they could get away with three or four things before they got punished,” she says, “then they would do three or four things every time just to see where the line was.”
Westfall believes this basic insight into human behavior can change adult probation in Tarrant County in a fundamental way. Last July, she helped establish an innovative new probation program in the 371st District Court called Supervision with Intensive enForcemenT (SWIFT).
SWIFT is modeled after the successful HOPE Court in Hawaii, which uses swift and certain sanctions to manage low-level drug offenders.
In the HOPE Court, a judge tells a probationer that instead of prison, he will be permitted to return home, where he can continue to work and provide for his family. The probationer also is told he will be called back frequently to the court without advance notice to determine whether he is complying with his probation terms. If he is not in compliance, he is placed immediately in county jail for the weekend.
There is no additional warning or protracted trial process — only swift and certain consequences.
A HOPE probationer offered drugs at a party on a Thursday knows that if he is summoned for a random drug test the following morning and fails, he will lose the opportunity to relax with family and friends over the weekend.
The HOPE model understands that people respond to immediate and commensurate punishments like this better than to longer and more severe punishments that seem tenuous and remote.
After Hawaii introduced HOPE in 2004, the rate of missed and failed drug tests dropped by nearly 80 percent. A probationer in HOPE is 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime than one who is not in HOPE. As a result, HOPE probationers are sentenced to about 50 percent fewer days of jail time.
Attorneys and probation officers were initially skeptical about being called into court for every minor probation violation, but the volume of work per offender has decreased over time.
Social scientists have long understood that people respond best to immediate punishments. Cesare Beccaria, an 18th-century thinker who is regarded as the founder of modern criminology, argued that swiftness and certainty in punishment are more important to deterrence than severity.
Beccaria, who was quoted by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, was deeply influential at the time of the American founding. Modern research on human behavior has validated his time-honored criminological theory.
But it is worth setting aside all of the complex academic literature and realizing that SWIFT-style policies are just a return to common sense. Any parent could explain why HOPE works just as well as any professor.
Revoked felony probationers currently account for more than one-third of Texas’ prison population and nearly half of the state jail population.
Texans pay approximately $600 million to incarcerate these individuals, but if probation were improved, the state would be able to reduce these costs and prioritize existing prison space for violent offenders who most need to be taken off the streets. Reform of this sort could also improve public safety and return low-level criminal offenders to productive, law-abiding lives.
Hawaii was a useful model for Tarrant County. It may soon be that Tarrant County is a useful model for the rest of Texas.