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Pilot program aims to crack down on probation violators

A new program implemented by the state Department of Corrections in Anchorage is aimed at reducing recidivism among probationers.

The pilot program, called Probation Accountability with Certain Enforcement, operates on the theory that certain and immediate sanctions are better at deterring probation violations than the looming threat of a long prison sentence.

Under Alaska's current system, there is no law that defines how many probation violations lead to incarceration. Some probation officers may send offenders back to jail after three failed drug tests, while others may wait until five failed tests. From the offender's point of view, there may be no way of knowing when he will be sent back to prison; he may have been let off the hook many times before. Furthermore, there is about a four-month delay after a probation violation before an offender actually enters prison. After a probation officer decides that incarceration is the best punishment, an offender will usually have to wait two months before appearing in front of a judge, and then another two months before he enters prison.

PACE solves this problem by sending probationers to jail for a short period of time the first time they violate probation (by failing a drug test or missing a meeting with their probation officer, for instance). As soon as an infraction occurs, a judge will issue a warrant for the criminal's arrest and the Anchorage Police Department will place that warrant at the top of the pile, ensuring that officers are dispatched as quickly as possible.

"The highest priority warrants will be those on the PACE program," APD chief Mark Mew said at a press conference on Wednesday.

The program officially started holding warning hearings on July 12. Last Thursday, six probationers -- all of whom have demonstrated problems with probation in the past --attended a warning hearing held by Judge John Suddock, one of the two judges assigned to PACE cases. These warning hearings are the state's opportunity to explain the program's policy to participants.

"The business of slack is not good for us and it's not good for you," Suddock told the probationers during the hearing. "Your probation officer is no longer going to cut you any slack."

PACE participants are required to call a hotline every morning to learn whether or not they will be taking a drug test that day. If they fail the test once, or miss their appointment, they will be sent to jail. Last Tuesday, one of the PACE judges had a probationer arrested for arriving 15 minutes late to his warning hearing, though he eventually let the offender go.

PACE is based on Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, a program created by Judge Steven Alm in 2004. Alm designed HOPE after estimating that about half of the probationers who appeared before him eventually went to prison, according to a New York Times article published this January. The strict system was remarkably successful, expanding from 34 people to 1500 in five years.

Carmen Gutierrez, special assistant to Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, heard about HOPE through the Alaska Judicial Council and wanted to try it in Alaska.

"Sanction needs to be immediate (to be effective) ... and that's what project HOPE is all about," Gutierrez said.

The DOC intends to assess the success of the program every six months, comparing revocation rates of the probationers on the program with those of offenders not participating. If the PACE program succeeds in reducing recidivism among the participants, the state may expand the policy. The current pilot program is small enough that it isn't incurring any extra expense, according to Schmidt. Eventually the program's expansion will necessitate more funding, but the commissioner said he does not want to worry about that until PACE has proved effective.

"Let's get it successful and then we'll talk about that," Schmidt said.

Contact Andrew Rubenstein at andrew(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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