The Northern Territory’s trial of an adapted Hawaiian parolee management program has passed its first year in operation. The COMMIT program is designed to reduce recidivism through ‘swift and certain’ sanctions imposed on individuals who return positive drug urinalysis results or disengage from supervision. HOPE/SWIFT, the original Hawaiian program which began in 2004, has been adopted by numerous US states, and has led to significant reductions in re-offending, substance use, disengagement from supervision and fewer subsequent reimpositions of outstanding sentence balances. While positive drug results and delayed or missed reporting attract brief gaol terms, lower penalties are imposed on participants who spontaneously admit to offending. Continued engagement and negative results will lead to less frequent testing.
A trial of the program in the NT began in early 2016 and as of November had approximately 35 participants. Participants are streamed into the COMMIT program during sentencing hearings and subsequent breaches are ideally managed by the original sentencing judge. While the program was designed to be trialled in the Darwin region, a quarter of participants reside in other areas in the Territory. The trial has revealed some avenues for potential improvement, including the need to modify standard conditions to remove ambiguities about drug tests which ‘may’ return a positive result. The program can also be resource-intensive as an explanation of the COMMIT program will take longer than a standard sentence. The need for interpreters for some Indigenous offenders adds further complexity.
For those interested in an in-depth assessment of HOPE and its applicability to the Australian context, see Lorana Bartel’s article in The Conversation and elsewhere: ‘Swift and certain sanctions: Is it time for Australia to bring some HOPE into the criminal justice system?’
ISABEL ROPER is a solicitor in Darwin.