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Washington's 'Swift And Certain' Parole Reforms Getting Results And Attention

President Barack Obama wants to expand a program pioneered in Washington to reform probation and parole. The new state law dramatically changed its approach to ex-offenders, and even the experts who back the new approach have been surprised at the promising results.

In the past, ex-offenders on probation or parole could often rack up a bunch of violation before they’d be punished. And by then the sanctions could be harsh: many months in jail.

The idea behind the new approach, called "swift and certain," is that a minor violation triggers an immediate but moderate punishment, such as a couple of days in jail for failing a drug test.

UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman says the immediacy and consistency of the approach gets ex-offenders to change their behavior without derailing people’s reentry into society.

“The notion is act like a good parent. Have clear rules, and every time they’re not being obeyed, do something about it,” he said.  

Pilot projects around the country showed dramatic reductions in violations. An initiative in Hawaii reduced failed drug and alcohol tests from 54 percent in the first month of probation to just 4 percent by the third month.

A small project in Seattle, targeting 35 paroled offenders, also showed significant benefits. And in 2012, Washington became the first state to roll out the strategy statewide.

But going from 35 people up to nearly 17,000 was a dramatic expansion. Angela Hawken, associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, thought it was completely premature.

“I was a naysayer on the front end, thinking they’d taken on too much too soon,” she said. “But by and large, the rest of us who know this work well watch Washington state with our jaws just dropping. It’s astonishing that they’ve managed to roll this out a smoothly as they have."

President Obama’s proposed budget includes $115 million for grants targeting ex-offenders, including these so-called “smart probation” programs.

Hawken will be in Olympia this week briefing corrections officials, and she expects a big batch of data on how the program is working in the next few weeks.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.
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