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The Texas Program

Section 1. Introduction By Robert Waxler (profile)
Section 2. Address To The Houston Philosophical Society
Section 2. By Larry Jablecki (profile)
Section 3. Texas Women's Paradigm By Jill Carroll (profile)

The Texas Programs
By Robert P. Waxler

It was in July of 1996 that Dr. Lawrence Jablecki attended the American Probation and Parole Association's Annual Conference in Chicago and first heard about the CLTL program during a panel discussion presented there. Jablecki returned to Texas wondering, as he puts it: "Why didn't I think of that?"

Larry Jablecki, the Chief Probation Officer of Brazoria County at the time, had traded his bowling ball for philosophy books long ago as a college freshman, and so he was struck by this CLTL program. He had a Ph.D. in philosophy and understood the profound connection between justice and the Great Books, and he wanted to make a change.

So when he came home from his trip to Chicago, Jablecki was fired up; he wanted to bring the CLTL program home to Texas. He wondered, though, if it would be possible. He knew Southern Texas was not Massachusetts. "Can we implement CLTL legally in Texas?" he asked himself. But he began at the same time to tell his colleagues: "There's a revolution in the criminal justice system going on in Massachusetts. I want to see if it can happen here in Texas as well."

In 1996, Dr. Jablecki sought out Judge Robert E. May, the chairman of the committee of seven judges in Brazoria County, and a man with a solid background in the humanities from his own undergraduate days. Like all the judges in Texas, Judge May was elected, not appointed (as judges are in Massachusetts), but he trusted Jablecki's judgment and insight and so agreed to do what he could to advocate for the CLTL program.

Judge May is a strong Baptist, a believer in redemption, and a man who has presided over more than a few capital cases: "We could call the program: 'Read a Book, Save a Crook,'" he suggested, half-jokingly perhaps. But he was clearly a believer from the start.

As he put it: "When you read a book, it slides into your soul. It gives you a glimmer, a dream of something a little higher. Sometimes the margin of difference is slight. But that small advance can actually be a huge gain. It can make all the difference."

In September 1996, Jablecki and May made a trip to Massachusetts, determined to get the CLTL program started. In Massachusetts, Jablecki and May talked with Professor Robert Waxler and Judge Robert Kane, the co-founders of the program, and Ron Corbett, the Massachusetts Deputy Commissioner of Probation.

When they returned to Texas, the judges agreed to authorize the program. Along with Judge May, who ran the pilot project, Judges K. Randall Hufstetler and James Blackstock, judges who also had strong undergraduate backgrounds in the liberal arts, would prove particularly helpful and supportive as advocates.

"When I first went to the two-hour class, it flew by," Judge Blackstock would say later. "I knew these guys only from court. I was blown away by the response I saw from these guys. The interaction was phenomenal."

Jablecki discovered, though, that judges in Texas cannot reduce sentences for criminal offenders the way they do in Massachusetts. So what could they use as an incentive for the offenders to sign up for the program? In Texas, a reduction in sentence would require a new trial.

In addition and at the same time, he heard from colleagues opposing the CLTL program. Probationers should not be doing this kind of program, many asserted. "Shoveling shit maybe! But not reading and discussing books on a college campus."

Despite the resistance, Jablecki remained determined, and the judges were able to offer the probationers an incentive: each probationer successfully completing the program would be credited with 75 hours of community service. That incentive was attractive.

In January 1997, the first Texas CLTL group began, based on the Massachusetts model. The group was all male, met for two hours each week for six sessions, started with the short story Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle, and then moved to longer works, mainly novels. Carolyn Huff, a retired English teacher facilitated the discussions, with Dr. Jablecki and Judge May also participating.

The sessions were held in a classroom at Brazosport Community College in Lake Jackson. Each student was charged a $10 fee to participate, but they had to purchase their own books. Later that rule would change: $35 per student, including the books.

The success of that initial program encouraged further interest and participation in Brazoria County. Other facilitators joined in: Richard Wilcher in the summer of 1997, for example, and Bill Lockett at Alvin Community College shortly after Wilcher. Dr. Jill Carroll also began classes for women at both Brazosport and Alvin, based on the Massachusetts model. All facilitators, it was agreed, would be paid between $1200 and $1500 per cycle out of the budget of the Adult Probation Department in Brazoria County.

The probationers enjoyed the classes, found them, on the whole, meaningful and energizing - better than watching television. And word began to get out about this unique humanities program for criminal offenders. The judges and probation officers began to comment on what they observed: a positive repetitive pattern: probationers returning for their GEDs, less violence against wives and girlfriends, and enhanced verbal skills. Such results inspired and re-enforced genuine interest in the CLTL program.

On November 20, 1997, Dr. Jablecki was invited to give a talk about CLTL before the prestigious Houston Philosophical Society. It was a defining moment for CLTL in Texas. The Society was gathered together for dinner in the Faculty Club at Rice University in Houston.

The CLTL classes had triggered the attention of Dr. Chuck Henry, one of the Vice Presidents at Rice University, as well as other members of the Philosophic Society. Jablecki's after-dinner lecture was well received among these opinion-makers and helped anchor interest in CLTL at Rice itself. In addition, Frank Michel, an associate editor at the Houston Chronicle, was there that night. His editorial appeared in the Houston Chronicle a few weeks later after he attended a class; the article applauded the CLTL program and called for a wide expansion of CLTL throughout Texas.

The CLTL program expanded rapidly in Brazoria County. Jill Carroll began to teach courses on the Rice campus, as did Chuck Henry. Larry Jablecki published an article, based on his lecture at Rice, in the well-respected journal, Federal Probation, boosting further the CLTL effort.

Probationers began to put their names on waiting lists, hoping to get into the program. Claudia Feldman, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, wrote a long feature article about CLTL, inspired by a visit from Massachusetts by Professors Robert Waxler and Jean Trounstine. The article featured Larry Jablecki and his work building the Texas program.

With Jablecki at the helm, the Texas program continued to expand over the next few years, and Jablecki put his unique stamp on CLTL when he decided to facilitate his own version of the program, using classic philosophic texts. While others continued the traditional literature focus, Jablecki, teaching several cycles each year with about 15 students per class, used his own favorite texts:

Session #1: Euthyphro
Session #2: Apology
Session #3: Crito and Phaedo
Session #4: Enchiridon
Session #5: On Liberty
Session #6: On Liberty and Graduation Ceremony

No visitors were allowed in these all-male sessions. It was "their private time," as Jablecki put it.

Jablecki set the rules at the beginning. He wanted to be tough but fair. If the probationers missed one class for any reason, they lost 15 hours from the 75 hours of reduced community service. If they missed a second class, they were out. He made it clear that he would use his own discretion in terms of sanctions if anyone was "late" or had not done the reading.

His approach in class was, in essence, socratic. He asked the probationers to read passages from the assigned texts each week; then, he would begin the dialogue by firing questions to bring the philosophic texts together with personal experience.

"You say you have a soul?" he might ask. "Then what do you do to care for your soul?"

"What do you want people to say at your funeral?" he might ask in response to another passage.

For Jablecki, the reading of these important philosophic texts and the discussion that follows allows probationers to locate themselves in relation to the world around them. It offers the opportunity to engage in genuine education - "to know thyself."

As Dr. Jablecki insists: "The issue here is self-reflection. The texts evoke discussion, and the discussion inevitably leads to stories of their own lives, their own stories as examples of the conceptual frame - the philosophic ideas."

Discussing the stoic philosopher Epictetus, for example, Jablecki might first point out Epictetus's apparent belief that we are all actors in a play, living out the role assigned us the best way we can.

"Should we conclude then," Jablecki might ask, "that Fate rules our lives? That we have no other purpose? That we cannot reason for ourselves?"

And then he waits patiently for the responses.

"When I was drunk I got in a bad accident," one probationer says, as if trying to explain Epictetus's point. "God kept me unharmed."

"So Epictetus is right?" Jablecki then challenges.

"No," the probationers insist. "We do have choices. We make stupid choices maybe, mistakes, but we can make choices," they all seem to agree.

They are now ready for the full debate with Epictetus, for a genuinely philosophic discussion about human freedom and choice, human purpose and meaning. As Socrates suggested, we can talk with philosophers, even after death.

Jablecki takes them through discussions ranging from "care of the soul" to "existential freedom," from "minority rights" to "the importance of public opinion," from "censorship" to "free speech." His favorite question is not "how?" or "when?" or "where?" or "what?" - it is always "why?"

And when he hears the pat answers: "That's what I've always been taught" or "It makes me feel good," he responds with another challenge: "You say you have a soul. Does it make any difference in the way you live your life? Are you really free to make choices?"

The three judges in Texas central to CLTL - May, Hufstetler, and Blackstock - all have a strong undergraduate background in the Liberal Arts, all trust Jablecki, and all deeply believe in justice and the possibility of redemption. They also want the best for the criminal justice system. They seem to be convinced that CLTL contributes to that cause.

As Judge Hufstetler put it as he reflected on the CLTL program: "You can look at probation as simply a means of reporting and oversight. Or you can look at probation as a way of not just blowing smoke but changing lives."

In February 2001, Dr. William R. Kelly at the University of Texas in Austin submitted an independent evaluation of the CLTL program in Brazoria County. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means "poor" and 10 means "excellent," Kelly reported "the overall program" rated 9.4.

As Dr. Kelly wrote in his final report:

"One might speculate that the primary reason for the program's popularity is because it is an easy 75 hours of community service ('sure beats pickin' up trash'). In fact, the appeal of the CSR hours is an important incentive for initially agreeing to participate. However, there are a number of very consistent and important advantages and benefits that the research participants reported...

-- The CLTL Program is perceived to be significantly different from other probation programs - respondents believe it is designed to help offenders; they view it as positive and constructive rather than just punishment or lacking a purpose.

-- There is increased desire/motivation to read and learn.

-- Positive psychological impacts are seen, such as increased tolerance, enhanced self-esteem, and a sense of accomplishment.

-- Anti-criminologic effects are noted, such as better control over impulsive behavior and increased awareness/understanding of the consequences of behavior.

On balance, while the CLTL Program may not be the ultimate solution to crime and recidivism, it is clearly innovative in its approach and remarkable in the benefits that participants receive. Praise and admiration are due those who develop, operate, and support the Program."

There are still waiting lists for the CLTL program in Texas. Probation Officers in Brazoria County eagerly wait for the next class to be announced. Over 600 probationers have successfully completed the program. We continue to hope that other counties in Texas will heed the advice of the Houston Chronicle back in 1997 and join the CLTL effort.

Indeed, deep in the heartland of Southern Texas, CLTL is making a difference.

Videos (may take a few moments to load):

Three video clips of the Texas program can be viewed:

Dr. Jill Carroll (video), facilitator of the Women's Program
A student from the Texas Men's Program (video )
A student from the Texas Women's Program (video).

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