Why Swift Certain & Fair?

About one-third of probationers and parolees fail the terms of their supervision. Over three-quarters of parolees are re-arrested within five years, and over half return to prison. High failure rates for people on probation and parole—whether for new offenses, revocations, or individuals who abscond from supervision—result in increased crime, crowded prisons and jails, and strained public budgets. Indeed, every single one of the seventeen states that have undertaken justice reinvestment since 2010 has found probation or parole revocations to be an important driver of their growing prison populations. And despite a variety of local, state, and Federal initiatives over the last two decades, failure rates for supervised individuals have not meaningfully fallen.

Why Swift Certain and Fair? Because—if the conditions are right—a SCF program can take high-risk individuals in your jurisdiction and substantially reduce their drug use, revocation and re-arrest rates, and the subsequent reliance on incarceration.


The mechanisms and logic of SCF programs are based on the fundamental rules of behavior modification tailored to the particular needs of offenders supervised in community settings. Offenders eligible for supervision frequently have exhibited poor impulse control, a preference for immediate and certain gratification in the face of future and uncertain negative consequences, and feelings of victimhood and powerlessness to change their own behavior often in the face of systems that they view as unjust. Compared to the general population, they prefer immediate rewards and believe that they have lost control of their lives to external forces.

Swift: SCF programs deliver a sanction immediately upon detection of a violation, which is critical in changing behavior. Responding swiftly also supports perceptions of the fairness of the program, reinforcing that element of SCF programs.

Certain: The consistency and predictability of punishments make the consequences of bad behavior clear to the offender, reinforcing the need to make better decisions and change behavior. An essential role is played by the clearly-defined behavioral contract with the offender—a tool that has repeatedly been proven to increase perceptions about the certainty of punishment.

Fair: The clear demarcation of the offenders’ new supervision conditions and the opportunity for a fresh start allow the offender to regain their sense of self-control. The contract enhances the perceived fairness of any subsequent punishment; this perception of fairness is further supplemented by the sparing rather than harsh level of punishment upon violation, which additionally limits disruption of employment and other non-criminal routines and relationships.

“SCF programs have the additional virtue of economizing public resources.”

SCF programs have the additional virtue of economizing public resources. The entire program is structured to avoid long and costly jail and prison stays. In addition, offenders requiring the most treatment and other support—as well as those needing the most supervision—elegantly self-select into groups in a process of behavioral triage wherein the most compliant individuals receive less supervision while those violating the most increase the attention paid to them. Therefore, costly supervision and treatment resources are also systematically targeted to clients who most need them.

Beyond the conceptual evidence supporting the effectiveness of SCF, there is a growing body of experimental research demonstrating how effective SCF can be—and helpfully illustrate both critical elements of success and where SCF programs can experience particular challenges and even fail.

Studies and Results

The development of Swift, Certain, and Fair—as well as the testing combined with swift and certain sanctions regime at its core—stretches all the way back to the 1970s with Operation Golden Flow and Operation Tripwire. Over that time, a rigorous research literature has developed that demonstrates the potential efficacy of such a program. Roughly in chronological order, those studies include the following.


Washington DC Drug Court Experiment

Started in 1993, this experiment randomly assigned drug felony defendants into three dockets: a conventional docket involving twice-weekly drug tests and judicial monitoring; a rehabilitative treatment docket providing community resources and programs to increase self-esteem and skills; and a sanctions docket intending to directly incentivize abstinence from drugs through swift and certain sanctions for failed drug tests with treatment referrals used only as a last resort.

Results: Both experimental dockets reduced drug use during pretrial release, but the sanctions docket also reduced arrests within the first year of release. It achieved this at lower cost, with a calculated savings of about $2 for every $1 in program costs. A critical part of the sanction docket’s cost-effectiveness was based on limiting treatment referrals only to defendants with demonstrated need.

Study: Harrell, A., Cavanagh, S., & Roman, J. (2000). Evaluation of the DC Superior Court drug intervention programs. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC.

Oregon Structured Sanctions

In 1993, Oregon enacted “structured sanctions” by applying a grid prescribing appropriate sanctions depending on the type of violation, offender risk level, and crime of conviction. In order to achieve consistency and celerity in the sanctioning process, Oregon devolved disciplinary power away from formal judicial processes and toward community supervision agencies. The program started with felony probation, but was later expanded to parole and post-prison supervision as well as misdemeanor probation.

“Probationers’ felony convictions rate dropped by almost 50%.”

Results: Although full fidelity was not achieved, the new regime did produce more swift and certain punishments. The delay between violation and response was reduced by 38 days, offenders were 23% more likely to have violations detected and acted on, and probationers’ felony convictions rate dropped by almost 50%. Drug use declined as dramatically as 56% in counties where implementation most closely resembled the planned sanctioning regime featuring frequent drug tests and short jail stays.

Study: Baird, S. C., Wagner, D., & DeComo, R. E. (1995). Evaluation of the Impact of Oregon’s Structured Sanctions Program. National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Maryland Break the Cycle

In 1997 Maryland implemented “Break The Cycle” (BTC) with a goal of targeting offenders on probation or parole with a drug condition and subjecting them to a testing-and-sanctions regime similar to the D.C. Drug Court’s sanctions docket.
However, BTC implementations varied widely, with inconsistent applications between counties in terms of sanctioning and determination of what constituted a drug condition. Whereas the D.C. Drug Court used an initial drug test to identify such condition, the supervising officer made this determination in BTC. In addition, judges had broad leeway in deciding both the frequency of testing and level of sanction applied.

“Cost-benefit analysis showed that these results created returns estimated at $2.30 to $5.70 for every dollar invested in the program.”

Results: The variation in implementations resulted in counties with more frequent drug tests and more consistent use of sanctions demonstrating greater reductions in future arrests. Cost-benefit analysis showed that these results created returns estimated at $2.30 to $5.70 for every dollar invested in the program. However, the studies also showed the costs of inconsistency and important failures at the launch of programs: some jurisdictions tested only five percent of offenders and completed revocations of clients only 146 days after the violation was identified.

Studies: Harrell, A., Roman, J., Bhati, A., & Parthasarathy, B. (2003). Impact Evaluation of the Maryland Break the Cycle Initiative. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Research Report.

Taxman, F., D. Reedy, K. Moline, M. Ormond, and C. Yancey. (2003). Strategies for the Drug-Involved Offender. University of Maryland Center for Applied Policy Studies, Bureau of Government Research.

Hawaii HOPE

Started in 2004, and operating to today, Hawaii’s HOPE was the first successful large-scale program featuring SCF sanctions. Compared to its predecessors, HOPE dramatically improved the certainty, swiftness, and arguably the fairness of sanctions: regular random drug tests (six times per month during the first few months) drastically lower the possibility of undetected drug use; sanctions, when delivered, were meted out within days of the detected violation; and jail terms were as brief as three days. The program introduced numerous successful innovations while also gathering previous innovations together in a consistent fashion for the first time. You can learn more about HOPE on our Current Programs page.

Results: A rigorous randomized-control trial of HOPE demonstrated the impressive results of what SCF can deliver when functioning optimally. About half of the HOPE probationers never tested positive after their initial warning hearing—and didn’t therefore require a sanction—and a further quarter of the caseload tested positive only one time.  Overall, the rate of missed and “dirty” drug tests dropped by over 80%. These are just two of the impressive results, where a wide variety of bad behaviors were each reduced by almost half or more (see chart).

Study: Hawken, A. & Kleiman, M. (2009). Managing drug-involved probationers with swift  and certain sanctions: Evaluating Hawaii’s HOPE. Evaluation Report. NCJ 229023. National Institute of Justice. Washington. Available here.


In 2004, Leighton Iles, a probation chief in Fort Bend, Texas, also implemented a probation model with the core features of SCF. The program would come to be called SWIFT (Supervision with Intensive Enforcement), and Leighton Iles would eventually bring it to Tarrant County (Fort Worth, TX). The main variations from the HOPE model include providing the full details on the sanctioning regime upon entering the program, a progressive sanctions schedule that starts with smaller penalties, a positive incentive scheme to supplement sanctions as a tool of behavior change, a more stringent drug-use testing protocol that includes hair assays, and charging the probationer for the cost of the random drug testing. More can be found on the SWIFT program on it’s Program Page.

“When contrasted with a matched group, SWIFT probationers violated their probation at significantly reduced rates and were only half as likely to be convicted for new crimes or revoked.”

Results: When contrasted with a matched group, SWIFT probationers violated their probation at significantly reduced rates and were only half as likely to be convicted for new crimes or revoked. In a result directly connect to SWIFT’s difference with the HOPE model, the most common violation was a failure to pay court fees.

Study: Snell, Clete (2007). “Fort Bend County Community Supervision and Corrections Special Sanctions Court Program: Evaluation Report.” Available here.

Alaska’s PACE

In 2010, Alaska started PACE, a program intentionally modeled on Hawaii’s HOPE and with HOPE members consulting on the launch of the new program.

Results: Preliminary results closely resembled HOPE’s level of success. Failed drug test rates dropped 16 percentage points, from 25 percent three months prior to enrollment to 9 percent in the three months following. In that same timeframe, the percentage of participants who failed or missed tests fell from 68 percent to just 20 percent.

Study: Carns, T. W., & Martin, S. (2011). Anchorage PACE probation accountability with certain enforcement: A preliminary evaluation of the Anchorage pilot PACE project. Alaska Judicial Council. Report available here.

Washington State WISP

In February 2011, the state of Washington began the Washington Intensive Supervision Program (WISP), a pilot testing whether SCF principles could expand beyond probationer to higher-risk parolees. The pilot was such a success that in April 2012, the state legislature overwhelming passed a law rolling out the program statewide. In rapid fashion, approximately 17,000 offenders supervised out of 113 field offices were oriented into WISP. More on WISP’s Program Page.

“The pilot was such a success that in April 2012, the state legislature overwhelming passed a law rolling out the program statewide.”

Results: WISP was studied using a randomized control trial assigning one-hundred and forty individuals to either WISP or the then current parole regime. WISP parolees positive drug tests dropped over 70%, and interestingly, among those assigned to WISP, the positive test rate fell with increasing exposure to WISP while the control groups’ rate of positive tests actually increased the longer they were on the business-as-usual program. Although the precision of results is mitigated due to the small sample sizes of the study, WISP had only one third the new arrests, convictions, and imprisonments of parolees on the existing system. Relatedly, while slightly more jail time was utilized for WISP, the amount of prison time utilized dropped 63%.

Study: Hawken, A. (2013). “WISP: What have we learned? Presentation to the Seattle City Council.” Available here.

Angela Hawken Evaluating the HOPE Project, Pepperdine University

Keith Humphreys Speaks on Swift, Certain, and Fair Punishment, Policy Exchange UK

Probationers Discussing Involvement with HOPE, Hawaii

Mark Kleiman: Can We Reduce Drug Crime Without Treatment?

Swift Certain & Fair