Let’s Try Something New: Less Punishment and Less Crime

Home » Let’s Try Something New: Less Punishment and Less Crime

Think that's possible?  I mean, really? 

Can we have less crime and less punishment? The answer is a resounding "Yes!" 

A pilot program launched last February with state prison inmates released to community supervision in Seattle has reduced drug use, crime and days in jail for violations of release conditions, according to a preliminary evaluation presented this morning to the City Council.  The Seattle Times has a story about the program in this morning's paper.

Bernie Warner, secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, and Angela Hawken, PhD, Associate Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis at Pepperdine University, presented findings to the Council this morning from the evaluation of the first six months of the Washington Intensive Supervision Program (WISP).  WISP is a community supervision model that uses swift, certain, yet modest sanctions for violations as an alternative to more traditional supervision where violation sanctions are less certain and often more severe.

The evaluation showed that offenders supervised through the “swift, certain, yet modest sanction” WISP model were two-thirds less likely to test positive in randomly assigned drug tests than offenders in a control group being supervised under a more traditional approach. The evaluation also showed that 70% of the positive drug tests occurred in the first 90 days of the program and then dropped dramatically as offenders realized sanctions would indeed be swift and certain.  WISP participants were randomly drug tested an average of 16 times during the first six months; control group participants were tested on average four times with advance notice.

In the first six months, WISP participants had one new felony conviction, whereas the control group produced four new felony convictions, suggesting that the WISP model of supervision is associated with a statistically significant reduction in crime. But, Hawken cautions that a longer evaluation period is necessary before this finding can be confirmed.

In the first six months, the number of days a WISP participant remained in jail while waiting for a violation hearing averaged 5.7 days compared to 16 days for those in the control group.  When violations were found, WISP participants were sentenced to an average of 20.5 days in jail compared to 44.5 days for the control group.

The WISP model is so simple.  It just makes sense.  Small penalties delivered quickly and consistently can change behavior more effectively than large penalties that come sporadically or not at all.  The result is safer neighborhoods for Seattle.

WISP is also an excellent adoption of an evidence-based program from another state, keen attention to the fidelity of replication, and our own thorough evaluation.  This is an approach I want to see more of in government to rebuild public trust by proving we are using taxpayer money wisely and effectively.

The WISP project was launched last February after City Council review in 2010 of alternative approaches to crime prevention, including Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation and Enforcement (HOPE) project that has dramatically reduced recidivism among probationers.  Mark Kleiman, PhD, Professor of Policy Analysis at UCLA, briefed the Council last year on research showing that swift, certain, yet modest sanctions can lead to improved offender behavior.  Kleiman detailed his research in the book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment.  Following Kleiman’s Seattle visit, I asked Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz to join me in inviting the Department of Corrections to establish a pilot project in Seattle to test Kleiman’s theory.