Failures tarnish Hawaii program to rehabilitate offenders
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
The Hawaii Judiciary's Project HOPE has won national praise for successfully controlling new criminal behavior by probationers, but there have been several tragic failures since the program began.
Most recently, probationer Aaron Susa was charged with murdering New Mexico tourist Bryanna Antone Oct. 2, less than a day after he completed his latest stay in prison for violating the rules of Project HOPE.
Another HOPE probationer, Corbit K. Ahn, is awaiting trial on charges that he murdered teenager Iris Rodrigues-Kaikana Aug. 24 and left her nude body in a dirt alley in Kalihi.
Hawaii's Opportunity for Probation with Enforcement is aimed at reducing criminal behavior by close supervision of probationers and promises of immediate arrest and incarceration for program violations.
But the recent murders of two young women allegedly committed by HOPE probationers has focused new attention on the HOPE program.
Circuit Judge Steven Alm, who created HOPE, said he and other judges can't discuss specific cases but pointed out that the program deals with "high risk" probationers who are most at risk for re-offending.
The program has been touted for having striking success.
Alm said preliminary results of a scientifically controlled study of HOPE and non-HOPE probationers showed that those in the HOPE group were arrested "less than half as often as those in the control group."
Final results of the study, conducted by Pepperdine University professor Angela Hawken, will be released soon, Alm said. But court files show that sometimes HOPE probationers not only commit new crimes, they commit extreme crimes of violence.
PENCHANT FOR CRIME
Records in Susa's criminal cases show that neither standard probation nor the more stringent HOPE supervision controlled his penchant for criminal behavior.
In the case of Ahn, the state Judiciary said he was initially placed in HOPE in November 2007 but he moved to the Big Island in early 2008 and was placed on "courtesy supervision" by the Big Island probation office, which has no HOPE program.
However, Ahn was back on Oahu by January of this year, according to recently filed court records. He has been charged in two assault cases, which were allegedly committed in Honolulu in January and July of this year.
There have been other failures:
• Court testimony last month revealed that when probationer David Teo was on the run from a HOPE arrest warrant for two weeks last year, he smoked crystal methamphetamine, committed an armed robbery and was involved, at least peripherally, in an "execution style" murder.
• Former HOPE probationer Kelii Acasia is now serving a 30-year prison sentence for a manslaughter he committed when a HOPE warrant was out for his arrest.
• Another HOPE probationer, RJ Ham, committed a homicide when he was wanted on a HOPE warrant and is now serving a sentence of life in prison for that crime.
• Probationer James L. Gouveia repeatedly violated HOPE rules from 2006 to August of this year, when Alm revoked Gouveia's probation and sent him to prison for five years. Now Gouveia has been charged with manslaughter in the Oct. 14 death of fellow inmate Monte Young at Hälawa Correctional Facility.
The HOPE program is being expanded and consolidated in Hawaii courts, and Alm and other proponents don't want isolated failures to blunt the program's momentum.
Alm began HOPE in 2004 to oversee a caseload of 34 probationers. Now some 1,500 individuals are in the program, out of a total of 8,000 probationers on Oahu.
Studies of the program have indicated that positive drug tests by HOPE participants have decreased by 86 percent; missed probation appointments have been reduced by 80 percent; and revocations and arrests for new crimes have dropped by some 50 percent.
"I'm a big supporter of HOPE," said criminal defense attorney Myles Breiner. "Initially, I had serious reservations, but recidivism is much lower and it's hard to argue with that."
Breiner said some HOPE probationers will commit new and serious crimes.
"It's going to happen. It's unavoidable," he said.
"But HOPE is the best thing I've seen at reducing new offenses in my nearly 30 years of practicing law."
City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle has expressed concerns before about the HOPE system, and the new murder charges against Susa and Ahn have increased his doubts.
"People are dead. That's a reason for tremendous concern," Carlisle said.
"There is definitely a place for HOPE probation," he continued. "It's the way probation ought to be run: quick, early interventions for failure to obey conditions of release."
But Carlisle questioned if "there are enough resources to make this work. HOPE is something that requires intense use of resources, including enough law enforcement personnel to serve arrest warrants."
As reported by The Advertiser, there are tens of thousands of backlogged arrest warrants in the hands of police and sheriffs here because those agencies don't have enough personnel to serve them.
Dr. Robert DuPont, a national expert on substance abuse and a strong proponent of HOPE, said, "The effectiveness of this (HOPE) approach really rests on the ability to make the apprehension quickly and make the consequences immediate and certain."
But DuPont, who was the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the White House drug chief under Presidents Nixon and Ford, said the results of HOPE so far indicate that fewer arrests will be necessary as the rate of recidivism decreases.
As for the the murder cases here involving HOPE probationers, DuPont said, "We're talking generally about a group of people who are of high risk to the community. But that's true whether we are talking about individuals in the HOPE program or some other form of supervision."
Stopping new crimes by probationers not only protects the public, it saves money throughout the criminal justice system, Alm said.
Less money is spent by police, prosecutors and public defenders, the courts, probation officers and prisons, he said.
"It makes the system work better," the judge said.
With a new federal $420,000 grant, a new deputy prosecutor and public defender are being hired, along with new drug testers, to deal with some 1,300 HOPE cases that will now be handled only in Alm's court.
"We're planning to add another 1,500 to 2,000 felony probationers to HOPE — that's double the size of the program," Alm said.
A nonprofit group, Friends of HOPE, has been formed to raise funds that will be used to help probationers with such things as job-training and child care, Alm said.
And he said he sees no reason why the principles of HOPE can't be applied to the parole system.
"With the success in probation, I'm hoping that someday it can be expanded to parole," he said.