Positive Youth Development: Changing Lives Through Literature

Looking for an alternative sentencing program that doesn't cost a lot of money and which seems to have significant impact on reducing recidivism and violent offenses? I've got one for you.
It's been around since 1991, has been implemented in as many as 12 states and the U.K. and involves reading and discussing books: Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). It was created by Professor Robert Waxler of the University of Massachusetts, and Judge Robert Kane of New Bedford, MA, and begun with the help of probation officer Wayne St. Pierre.

The program has been most frequently used with adult offenders (click on the man pictured above for a brief video about the program), but it's also been implemented in many places with juveniles as well. In fact, it was Judge Bettina Borders of the Reclaiming Futures site in Bristol County, Massachusetts who brought it to my attention. (Kelly DeSouza recently wrote about her experiences facilitating CLTL classes for youth in Bristol County's juvenile drug court.)
How does the program work? I interviewed Professor Waxler to find out.
Structure and Activities: 8-10 youth meet with a judge, probation officer, and group facilitator on a regular basis -- often, every other week for 12 weeks. Everyone in the group reads the same book at the same time, and then meets to discuss it. The probation officer and the judge participate as members of the group. Facilitators often come from local faculty, though lawyers and high school teachers have also served in this role.
Which Youth Participate? Each jurisdiction uses different guidelines. Generally, the probation officer makes this decision, in consultation with attorneys and the judge.
Meeting Location: Varies, but ideally the group wlil meet in an educational setting or a library, so the focus is not on the court environment.
Cost: The only absolutely necessary costs are the books, and honoraria for facilitators where possible (the judge and probation officer volunteer their time), so the cost-per-participant can be very low. At the upper end, additional things can be underwritten. In Massachusetts, the state pays for statewide training for 10-12 sites. Under these circumstances, Waxler estimates it costs about $500 per participant -- which is still very low, considering the benefits.
What Do Participants Get Out of It? As with a drug court, participants may avoid significant sanctions if they participate. For example, they may have their probation reduced, stay out of jail or detention, or avoid felony charges.  More importantly, though, they get something even better: a new outlook.
As Waxler says, "When you read a good piece of literature, as the story unfolds, the story of your own inner life begins to unfold, and the result is that you become self-reflective; you can’t help it. Then you enter into a discussion with other people. Through that discussion, you realize there’s a complexity to human life and to the perception of human life and to your own life, so a lot of the stereotypes and simple ways of looking things begin to fall away, and you begin to appreciate the multi-dimensional nature of all life. You start to see your parents as not necessarily the enemy, but as human beings with the same sense of vulnerability as you might feel."
Sound touchy-feely? A study of the program that appeared in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation in 1998 offers strong evidence that the program reduced recidivism for adult participants; other studies suggest it also greatly reduces the likelihood that participants will commit violent offenses.
As Waxler says, "Sometimes I think people are violent because they have no other way of expressing themselves – they’re so marginalized, they’ve lost their voice, etc. I think through this program, they find a voice –- people listen to them; afterwards, they feel much more comfortable with language, rediscover their own sense of place in the world.
"That’s the power of literature and language; there’s nothing more central than these if you want to maintain a human community."
How Can You Participate? Check out the Changing Lives Through Literature site for a wealth of information about the program, including sample forms, instructions for interested probation officers, judges, and facilitators.
And check back soon for an interview with the probation officer in Bristol County, MA for her perspective on the program.

Reading's not the only literary path to positive youth development. Youth can get a lot of therapy out of writing poetry.

Updated: February 08 2018