Novel Approach to Sentencing Has Criminals Hitting the Books

By William Bole

American News Service

LOWELL, Mass. -- When Judy Barden Walsh got hauled into court for the latest in a row of drug and alcohol-related charges, the judge not only threw the book at her. He made her read it, too.

She received an unusual sentence: to read novels and come back and talk about them with a judge, an English professor, and a small group of offenders like herself.

Dozens of convicts are doing their time around seminar tables as part of a unique program in Massachusetts called Changing Lives Through Literature.

This novel approach to sentencing may seem off the mark in a tough-on-crime age. But the five-year-old program has garnered good reviews from law-and-order politicians, because of findings that those who go through the book groups go straight.

Walsh said the college-level reading helped give her self-confidence and a taste for more education. "Up until then, I wasn't taking responsibility for my life," said Walsh, a former drug addict who had committed a series of minor offenses including drunken and disorderly conduct.

Two years ago, when she took the course with other women offenders here, Walsh was living in a homeless shelter with her daughter. Now she is back on her feet and preparing to take the entrance exam for nursing school.

Her turnaround is typical of a program that has attracted the attention of judges in other states who are seeking ideas for their own courts. Furthering their interest have been studies like one by an Indiana University professor who found graduates of the program are far less likely to commit new offenses than others with similar records.

Privately run, but augmented with public dollars, the program aims to redirect the lives of repeat offenders with a message of personal responsibility, self-respect and compassion. The message comes through in the literature and seminar-style discussions on college campuses.

"There's something magical that happens around that table," said Robert Waxler, a literature professor who started the experiment at the Dartmouth campus of the University of Massachusetts. "It's a discussion that allows everyone involved to be reflective about the characters in the stories -- and about themselves."

Esteban Velez reflected on characters such as Wolf Larsen, the brutal ship captain in Jack London's "Sea Wolf." "I started to see myself in him, and I didn't like what I saw," said Velez, who had faced imprisonment for drug possession and breaking and entering.

Now he is helping inner-city high school students with their reading as part of a spin-off project of Changing Lives Through Literature.

The idea for the adult offenders' program arose from conversations between Waxler and his tennis partner, Judge Robert Kane of the district court in New Bedford, Mass.

As Waxler recalls, the judge shared his frustration over seeing the same people come before him over and over, for repeated offenses. The professor shared his view that literature ought to be "part of the thinking about solutions to public problems."

The solution they devised has spread to 10 district courts in Massachusetts, and Kane said he is in touch with judges and correctional officials in other parts of the country interested in adopting the literature model.

Before entering the program, convicts must first demonstrate a desire to turn over a new leaf. No sex offenders or murderers are allowed.

Participants read six novels in the three-month courses. If they cut class and don't have an excellent excuse, they go to jail.

Here at Middlesex Community College, English professor Jean Trounstine leads a group that meets every other week in the president's office and includes a judge, 10 women offenders and two probation officers, all participating as equals.

On a recent Tuesday evening, they talked over "Tell Me a Riddle," a collection of short stories by Tillie Olsen. Judge and convicts reflected on the struggle of her characters to understand their relationships with each other and the world.

Summarizing the sentiment, Trounstine remarked at the end, "In all these stories, we are our brother's keeper. We do care. We have to care. It's the way we are."

The fact that Judge Joseph Dever participates in the groups was what most impressed Walsh when she took the course. "It was just amazing to me," said the aspiring nurse, who came to feel the "system" was not against her.

Putting criminals in front of books rather than behind bars is the sort of sentencing scheme that could provoke hostile reactions. Kane said some of his colleagues on the bench would probably think, "That's coddling. That's too soft on criminals."

But the program has stirred no visible controversy, partly because of what politicians consider a track record of success.

"It's apparently having an effect on the lives of the participants," said Doug Cope, spokesman for Rep. Ed Teague, Republican leader of the state House of Representatives. The lawmaker helped appropriate $100,000 in state funding for the program this year.

Kane's court in New Bedford has just completed a survey of the 68 convicts who completed the classes led by Waxler in the first five years. Tracking them for periods of two to four years, before and after the program, the study found that crime of all types among the graduates fell by 68 percent. The rate of felonies dropped by almost 80%.

Indiana University criminal justice professor Roger Jarjoura said the results indicate that Changing Lives Through Literature has continued the progress he tracked in his 1983 study. At the time he found that 19% of the graduates were convicted of new crimes, compared with 45% of a "control" group studied.

Jarjoura thinks the program works, but he added a caveat: Other factors might have contributed to the success of the graduates.

"It looks like these people were at a point where they were ready to turn their lives around. What the program did was keep them moving in that direction," he said. "There's no getting around it, the motivation has to be there on the part of the offender."

Books Work Better Than Boot Camps, Expert Says

Changing Lives Through Literature has enjoyed success where other forms of alternative sentencing have failed, according to an expert who has monitored the programs.

"It's an area which invites skepticism, and there's lots of room for improvement," said Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a private Washington group that studies prison alternatives.

He cited one kind of alternative sentencing currently popular among politicians -- "boot camp," which aims to reform criminals through military-style training. Offenders who opt for the training get shorter sentences.

Ample studies have shown that the camps, while creating camaraderie among offenders, do little or nothing to curb their rates of repeat offense, Young said.

Programs that allow criminals to serve out their sentences at home, monitored by electronic tethers, have also proven ineffective.

The arrangements that do work are those like the literature courses in Massachusetts that involve personal contact with offenders, Young added.

In that regard, drug treatment programs have consistently proven effective in leading criminals onto the straight and narrow path, he said.

While studies have indicated that graduates of Changing Lives Through Literature commit far fewer offenses than others with comparable records, Young cautioned that the program isn't for everybody. It isn't, of course, for those who are illiterate, a sizable slice of the criminal population, he noted. "That's not a criticism," he said. "It's a limitation."

Books for Offenders

Readings assigned in Professor Robert Waxler's current Changing Lives Through Literature course for male offenders:

  • "Greasy Lake," by Corghessan Boyle (short story).
  • "Old Man and the Sea," by Ernest Hemingway.
  • "Sea Wolf," by Jack London.
  • "Of Mice and Men," by John Steinbeck.
  • "Deliverance," by James Dickey.
  • "Affliction," by Russell Banks.

    Novels and stories assigned in Professor Jean Trounstine's current class for female offenders:

  • "The Wife's Story," by Ursula LeGuin (short story).
  • "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," by Ann Tyler.
  • "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison.
  • "Pigs in Heaven," by Barbara Kingsolver.
  • "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Neale Hurston.
  • "Shipping News," by Annie Prioux
  • "Tell Me a Riddle," by Tillie Olsen (short stories).

    Copyright 1997 The American News Service

    See These Related Stories on Books and Literacy--

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  • Novel Approach to Sentencing Has Criminals Hitting the Books
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  • Some Reading Suggestions on The Subject of Literacy
  • Some Ways You Can Help Make a Difference.

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