Is Project HOPE Creating a False Sense of Hope?
A Case Study in Correctional Popularity
by Stephanie A. Duriez, Francis T. Cullen, Sarah M. Manchak, University of Cincinnati
Based in Hawaii, Project HOPE uses certain but non-severe graduated sanctions to specifically deter probationers from violating supervision conditions, especially drug use. Scholars and policy makers have trumpeted HOPE as a new model for offender supervision even though the evaluation evidence, though promising, is limited. In this context, we explore the sources of the program's "correctional popularity," which has led to its uncritical acceptance and importation to the U.S. mainland. We argue that several uncertainties about the program may potentially compromise its effectiveness in other jurisdictions, thus offering false hope as a new paradigm for effective probation supervision. Finally, we caution that correctional popularity risks exacting a high cost when promising, if not unproven, programs-such as Project HOPE are adopted rather than alternative evidence-based treatment strategies.
Every few years, an intervention bursts upon the scene, is heralded as having special crime-reducing powers, and is enthusiastically implemented. Prominent examples include DARE programs for youngsters' drug prevention, scared straight for nascent delinquents, boot camps for young adults supposedly in need of a good dose of discipline, and three-strikes-and-you're-out laws for predatory recidivists. James Finckenauer (1982) has used the term "panacea phenomenon" to describe initiatives that, with very little criminological or empirical scrutiny, arise, are quickly embraced, and are imposed on the wayward with very little understanding of their true impact.
Attracting wide popularity, in and of itself, does not mean that a program is ineffective and should be abandoned. But when popularity leads to the uncritical acceptance of a program, caution is called for. In addition to asking for further critical appraisal and quality evaluations, the very source of a program's popularity needs to be unpacked. Why are so many policy makers and scholars so willing to throw caution to the wind and to jump on an initiative's bandwagon? Correctional popularity-why some programs are embraced and others are not thus should be seen as an important area for study.
In this context, "Project HOPE"-the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement program-warrants analysis. Though limited, there is some evidence of Project HOPE's effectiveness (Hawken and Kleiman, 2009). But this does not fully explain why the program is being trumpeted as a crime solution to be adopted widely and without concern. Indeed, statements praising HOPE abound:
There aren't any magic bullets that can end America's continuing battle with crime and addiction. But HOPE comes closer than anything we've seen in a long time. It has remarkable impact-cutting new arrests and failed drug tests by more than half, compared to a randomly selected control group. And it can be applied to thousands of offenders at a time. It's not a boutique program that works well with a few dozen. (Gelb, 2011, p. 2)
Notably, it is not just commentators who have jumped on the HOPE bandwagon. With the "H" in HOPE now to changed "Honest" (from Hawaii), this intervention is being implemented with amazing rapidity. As Angela Hawken-an evaluator and now advocate of Project HOPE-observes, "We know of at least 40 jurisdictions in 18 states that have implemented similar models" (quoted in Pearsall, 2014, p. 3). Wishing to spread this approach further, the American Legislative Change Council (2014)-known commonly by its acronym of "ALEC"-has developed model legislation for the "Swift and Certain Sanctions Act."
Again, no claim is being made that the HOPE program is necessarily ineffective. Still, although trite to a degree, there is wisdom in the saying that "when something seems too good to be true, it usually is." The risk inherent in correctional popularity is that a promising program can be prematurely oversold. It can gain the status of a proven, rather than of a promising, program. It also can cause otherwise judicious scholars and policy makers to trumpet a program for the wrong reason-not because the intervention works, but because it resonates with their worldview and thus seems "obviously" effective. Even if it works, correctional popularity can cause observers to misperceive why this is so, leading them to accept that a proposed mechanism is responsible for offender change. In reality, other unpublicized and thus unrecognized features may be driving the program' s success: Subsequent interventions may be implemented with an emphasis on the wrong "key ingredients." Finally, correctional popularity may have a high opportunity cost if a newly invented popular program of questionable effectiveness is used instead of an existing intervention that is evidence based and of proven success.
This essay thus uses Project HOPE to provide a case study in correctional popularity. The analysis will be undertaken in four sections. First, the origins and the details of the HOPE program will be presented. We also review the limited literature available on its effectiveness. Second, an attempt will be made to unpack why HOPE has become so popular, despite several theoretical and practical limitations. Six factors will be considered that, when taken together, constructed a persuasive social reality that defined HOPE as an effective intervention. Third, we then explore why Project HOPE may be creating a false sense of hope by offering a community supervision model that may be limited in its effects, difficult to implement, and inattentive to what is now known about offender change. Fourth, the essay will conclude by arguing for correctional popularity to be seen as an intervention risk to be studied and guarded against. Popular programs can be effective, but popularity can trump professional skepticism and scrutiny and have a high cost for corrections.
PDF: ENTIRE REPORT