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Opinion | On Parole, Staying Free Means Staying Clean and Sober

Joy Thompson was in her early 50s when she started using opioids.

Pain medication prescribed for hip replacement surgery in 2014 sent Ms. Thompson, now 58, quickly into addiction. By 2017, after she attempted to sell a gun to an undercover police officer to raise money for drugs, she was behind bars at a state prison in Clinton, N.J. Now she credits the officer who arrested her with preventing her involvement in the kind of crime for which she’d have a much harder time forgiving herself. “That cop saved my life,” she said. “Imagine if that gun ended up on the street and a kid got hold of it.”

Ms. Thompson, a grandmother of five who lives in Seaside Heights, N.J., is also grateful for what happened after she spent two-and-a-half-years in prison: Instead of the parole experience fellow inmates told her she could expect — in which “the parole officer follows you around and sets you up so you get reincarcerated,” she said — she entered a pilot program designed to keep parolees from relapsing into addiction and being sent back to prison.

That program was New Jersey’s version of Swift, Certain and Fair, a set of principles developed by local governments, academics and nonprofits. The program’s principles stress quick, reasonable and transparent responses to parole offenses, a change from the traditional bureaucracy-laden process that characterizes most of the parole system. Probationers and parolees who violate the terms of their release often wait months for their turn before a parole board or judge. The long pause may be to blame for rampant recidivism. According to Pew Research, a third of the roughly 2.3 million people who exit probation or parole each year do not successfully complete supervision.

It’s a scenario that has been vexing Angela Hawken, the director of the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University and one of Swift, Certain and Fair’s creators, for more than a decade. “Putting somebody in custody for something they did six weeks ago is being punitive for no purpose,” she said. Telling someone her failed drug test will earn her an immediate stay in rehab may be a different story.

It has been for Ms. Thompson. New Jersey’s version of Swift, Certain and Fair got its first clients in 2019 after the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a nonprofit that helps people re-form their lives after prison, secured a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Since 2014, Department of Justice organizations, including the Bureau of Justice Assistance, have partnered with more than 30 states to give out $14.9 million in Swift, Certain and Fair grants. New Jersey’s slice of that pie was intended to help only parolees at risk of opioid overdose. And it extended to just two counties, Ocean and Monmouth. The narrow parameters afforded a better chance of stamping out what Samuel J. Plumeri Jr., the state parole board chair, called a “herculean” problem in the region.

The 50 clients chosen to participate were given access to services unavailable to other parolees. A social worker, Sandra Josie White, helped sort out problems, like Ms. Thompson’s trouble gaining her daughter’s trust so they could share a home at the start of her nine months of parole. A peer recovery specialist, Kevin Lecorchick, was on hand to address slip-ups or relapses, which he said can be expected with most clients, though Ms. Thompson had none. And a parole officer, Tom Bielskie, was in charge of supervising all participants. The three met to discuss each client’s case at least once a week. They called it “behavioral triage.”

“Because I’m a parole officer, let’s face it, an individual might not want to tell me everything, like the possibility of a relapse,” Mr. Bielskie said. “But having a recovery specialist and a social worker broadened the scope of what we could offer. A lot of them got the help they needed.” That includes the 22 participants who successfully completed the program. Six returned to prison. The rest are still on parole.

“Clients really did reach out to us,” Ms. White said. And that was even though it was up to her, Mr. Lecorchick and Mr. Bielskie to enforce consequences. Ms. White sent a client to detox a day after he admitted using heroin after a family member died from Covid. “If you did anything substance-abuse-related, we came in with a response.” In New Jersey, the response was always drug treatment, inpatient or outpatient.

That has not always been the case with Swift, Certain and Fair. The blueprint for it was created in Hawaii. In 2004, a judge, Steven Alm, got fed up with probationers repeatedly returning to prison. His frustration found expression in a program he named HOPE Probation — Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation With Enforcement — whose goal was to mete out modest punishments to deter slip-ups, like an automatic day in jail for failing a drug test.

HOPE Probation worked. In 2009, researchers found that probationers who took part were 55 percent less likely to be arrested in connection with a new crime, 72 percent less likely to use drugs and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked. Word spread, and grant proposals for what became known as Swift, Certain and Fair started circulating. They were premature. “The results in Hawaii triggered all this interest,” said Jonathan Kulick, the deputy director of research and programs at the Marron Institute and a co-director of the Swift Certain Fair Resource Center. “But people took the wrong lesson and said, ‘Whatever worked in Hawaii, we’ll do here.’”

The one-size-fits-all attempts didn’t take into account the norms and needs of each region. “What’s a really good idea in some places is a terrible idea in others,” Dr. Hawken said. “You’ve got to make modifications based on what works for your culture.” An adaptation in South Dakota called 24/7 Sobriety that started in 2005 and required repeat D.U.I. offenders to show up for twice-daily breathalyzer tests worked, but one in Clackamas County, Ore., in 2012 didn’t. Corrections there were already built on a model that was not overly punitive, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report.

New Jersey’s Swift, Certain and Fair trial ended in January. Its administrators consider it a success. So does Ms. Thompson, despite some setbacks. She recently lost her job at a laundromat after a customer accused her of stealing a sweatsuit. “It’s not anything I would have taken, but I didn’t want her to call the cops, because I have a felony on my record,” she said. She quit on the spot, after giving the customer the $40 she demanded for the missing clothes. She is still unemployed.

“But I’m going to be OK,” she said. “I’m not thinking about drugs all the time, and I’m not thinking of doing anything illegal to get my rent money. I’m accountable now. I’m on the right path.”

This article is part of Fixes, a series that explores solutions to major social problems. To receive email alerts for Fixes columns, sign up here.

Tammy La Gorce is a freelance journalist who writes about criminal justice and other social issues.

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