New Probation Program Will Lead to Immediate Consequences for Defendants in Lowell Superior Court

An article in today’s Lowell Sun described a new probation program that is being enacted in Lowell Superior Court that will likely lead to more defendants who are on probation going to jail.

The HOPE/MORR probation program has already gone into effect in Salem and Worcester Superior Courts and it will be arriving in Lowell within the next few months.  The program was invented by a judge in Hawaii in 2004, and it is built on the theory that every probation violation, even a very minor violation, will result in immediate incarceration.  Therefore, if a probationer fails a drug screen or misses an appointment with his probation officer, he will be immediately taken into custody and sent to jail for a short period of time (from one day to a couple of weeks).

The program has been received enthusiastically by nearly everyone involved in its implementation in other jurisdictions.  Probation in superior court is extremely dangerous because of the lengthy potential prison sentences that accompany most superior court crimes.  For example, armed robbery carries a sentence of up to life in prison.  If somebody is on probation for armed robbery and violates his probation, the judge can sentence him to any term of years, up to life in prison.  Under the current system, minor violations typically do not result in immediate incarceration.  Therefore, a probationer usually does not go in front of a judge until he has either picked up a serious violation (such as committing a new crime) or committed multiple minor violations.  A probationer who goes in front of a judge with several minor violations is likely to get a much more severe sentence than a probationer who has a single minor violation.  The theory of the HOPE/MORR program is that by letting probationers know they will be punished immediately (but less severely), it will greatly reduce the minor violations.

The studies that have been conducted on the Hawaii program have proven its success.  According to the Sun, a 2009 study concluded that Hawaii probationers who were enrolled in the program were 72 percent less likely to fail a drug test, 61 percent less likely to miss an appointment with their probation officer, and 55 percent less likely to be arrested again than probationers in the standard probation system.  During the six months that Worcester Superior Court has been operating the HOPE/MORR program, only 13 of 206 drug tests were positive and 62 percent of the probationers did not commit any violations at all.

The Lowell probation department, which is one of the best in the state, will drug test the probationers at least once a week.  If a probationer tests positive, he will be brought before a judge the same day and be taken into custody.  After a short period of incarceration, he will be released and placed back on probation.  The goal is to avoid sentencing probationers to lengthy prison sentences by addressing every small violation immediately.

While this program will hopefully benefit the individuals on probation, it is also intended to save the taxpayer the expense of long-term imprisonment of former probationers.  According to Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, it costs $45,000 to $50,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate.