Sentencing Defendants to Read
By Judge Joseph Reardon (profile)
When my friend and colleague, Judge Robert Kane, first suggested to me that I give some thought to the innovative program he and Professor Robert Waxler had commenced in the New Bedford District Court, I became quite curious. My interest was piqued by the sincerity and passionate intensity expressed by Bob Kane, who enthused over the satisfaction he and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre were experiencing while participating in this innovative sentencing strategy in which criminal offenders were being made to read works of literature as a condition of their probation and the price for retaining their freedom. Bob described the sessions he and Wayne had at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, with Bob Waxler leading the discussion.
I initially gave this careful thought but did not take action until I personally experienced the excitement and benefit of a shared reading experience with other judges at a program sponsored by the Judicial Institute at Brandeis University. This caused me to understand what Bob Kane was experiencing in his program, and I immediately approached my Chief Probation Officer, and we began the process of starting the Changing Lives Through Literature program in my court. As a result, Probation Officer Henry (Hank) P. Burke came to Barnstable from Taunton, since he possessed both a desire and the ability to engage in this program with probationers. The next step was to convince our local Cape Cod Community College that this was a worthwhile endeavor. Dr. Lori DeBower, the head of the Language Department, responded favorably, and Professor George Albert was assigned to us as our facilitator, where he continues to this day.
We have now completed eight years, and we are still as enthusiastic and supportive as on the day we started. Our experience has been very positive in that the recidivism rate of our CLTL graduates is far lower than that of other defendants engaged in traditional probation supervision. When there is recidivism, we have noted a very substantial diminution in the severity of any new offense. This is a confirmation of the efficacy of the program.
In order for me as a judge to be able to justify this approach to sentencing, I have to look at the record of the offender and ascertain an ability to read. This program is not for everyone. I am looking for the type of offender who is chronically before the court, charged with misdemeanor offenses resulting in incarceration. His CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) will indicate that the House of Corrections is a revolving door for this offender. It is very clear that loss of freedom is not the key to motivating a change in lifestyle. I became dissatisfied with the system I presided over when I observed the same defendants day in and day out appearing before me, charged with the same kinds of offenses that bothered the peace of our community. It became clear to me that we needed a different way of addressing the problem of recidivism. The profile of this defendant was readily apparent. The solution was not so clear.
Since incarceration did not effect change, I wanted to know why. In my discussions with clinical personnel, I was told that people will not change unless they internalize the messages they want to send and adopt as their own new way of looking at their lives. CLTL accomplishes this end result. We have repeatedly seen men blossom into more thoughtful human beings who learn to respond to situations instead of reacting in the usual manner. I am convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that the roundtable literature discussions evoke dormant concepts and surface long forgotten thoughts of morality, ethics, conscience, duty, and responsibility. These are the traits that all of us learned and possessed at some moment of our existence. The men we are dealing with are not intrinsically evil. They are usually thoughtless and selfish human beings who have a poor self-image and doubt their own validity as worthy members of the community. This very self-deprecation is one of the main causes of their continuing recidivism.
Through the lens of literature and identification with the characters they read about, a subjective awareness grows about themselves and their fellow students as they began to view life in a new way. This emerging awareness is, in effect, the result of their internalizing and adopting the values we discuss at the roundtable, our likes and dislikes of the characters and the why of these feelings. When they make these discoveries their own, as they do, they now truly own them and adopt them into their own lives. This is the change that the literature brings about. These men find excitement in ideas and values new to them and come to an appreciation of why their prior conduct was so unacceptable to the community.
The thrill of observing these men discover themselves is the invigorating aspect of the program that Hank Burke, George Albert, and I have come to rely upon to fuel our energy. The knowledge that we have done something that the House of Corrections is not able to do is significant. However, the truly motivating factor is that we have made our community a better place because we have caused these men to re-examine their own lives and decide to change how they engage others in this community. We, as judges and probation officers, are in a position to influence these men. Our traditional methodology is not working very well, as is apparent in the rate of recidivism.
CLTL is inexpensive, available at every court, does not consume any part of the court budget, and works. All that is required is one judge, one probation officer, one college professor, and 8-10 probationers. I urge and encourage all to engage in this program and experience the pleasure that is sure to follow.