The New Bedford Men's Program
By Robert Waxler (profile)
Section 1. In The Beginning
Section 2. First Literature Seminar
Section 3. How We Continued
In the Beginning
In the early 1980s I received a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Grant to participate in a seminar at Princeton on the topic of literature and society. The focus of much of our discussion that summer was on the role of literature in a society that was becoming increasingly fascinated by technology and the business of science. Was literature doomed to a place, at best, on the margins of this society?
It was almost a decade later when I sought to answer this question with a practical application. Coming off the tennis court with my good friend Robert Kane, who was a District Court Judge in New Bedford at the time, I offered him a challenge: "Bob, if you're willing to take eight or ten criminal offenders, tough guys, coming before your bench, headed to jail, and instead sentence them to a literature seminar at the university, I would be willing to set the course up, get the room, choose the books, facilitate the discussions."
Judge Kane had been concerned about the "turnstile justice," as he put it, that he had seen in his courtroom, offenders sentenced to jail, then, after serving their term, they were out the door and then back in the courtroom again to answer for another crime. So the proposed literature program made sense. Why not try it?
And so it began.
Judge Kane deserves a lot of credit, as do all judges who participate in this innovative program. No doubt it takes considerable courage and determination, commitment to human justice I would say, for a judge to agree to get involved in this literature program. Judge Kane had been a feared prosecutor in an earlier phase of his life and to assent to such an apparently soft idea could not have been easy, although over the years now, we realize that the CLTL program is not soft; in fact, it is at least as tough as the probationers participating in it.
As Judge Kane and I talked about the details, we began to map out what we considered an experiment in justice and literature. We had no clear idea how it would work, or even if it would work; but, given my passion for and deep belief in literature, and the judge's commitment, I was sure it could make a difference. In the process, we needed to consider the role of sentencing, the moral value of reading, and the interplay of men of privilege with men of little power.
Judge Kane immediately enlisted Wayne St. Pierre, an energetic and sensitive probation officer in New Bedford who understood our vision and appreciated literature. Wayne had serious doubts about our expectations but wanted to get involved. As a probation officer, he would help to screen potential students for the literary discussions, then supervise the group and join in the discussions at the university. Wayne became a crucial member of the team: a judge, a probation officer, and a professor. And it was that three-person team that eventually would serve as a model for the program as it grew.
Choosing the Participants
But how would the choices of participants in the program be made from the large pool of criminal offenders passing through the District Court each day?
I asked Judge Kane to choose "tough guys" with significant criminal histories so that if the experiment did work, critics could not easily come back and claim we had stacked the deck, made it look as if we were changing the lives of serious offenders when we really weren't. As it turned out, the average number of convictions for those entering the first two groups, for example, was 18.4 per person. They were tough guys no doubt. The offenses commonly included drug and alcohol use, community disruption, and assaults.
But we have had a wide variety of offensives represented, including acts such as armed robbery with a mask. Substance abuse, erratic employment, and unstable domestic and residential relationships are typical of the offenders' background as well.
In my view, these are men, on the whole, lacking confidence in their abilities. They feel as if they have no voice in the mainstream culture. They are alienated, dispossessed, and in need of self-reflection and human community.
As the judge puts it: "Their alienation manifests itself episodically in courtroom behavior and in the form of smoldering rage. These offenders, though, appear to possess internal control capacities suggesting that confinement does not represent the only reasonable response to their criminal behavior." We needed to help them find their voices through literature, find a way of giving shape, through language, to their rage and intelligence, we believed.
We set some general guidelines for this first group in New Bedford. To qualify for the group, you must not be actively addicted, we said, must be capable of reading at an eighth-grade level, nor can you have committed criminal acts of sexual abuse or murder. But even these guidelines would be flexible, depending on the individual situation. I remain convinced that almost anyone can benefit from this program.
It is my belief, for example, that this program works as well for violent offenders as for non-violent ones. In fact, the reading of good literature and the exposure to language through discussion of books around the table seem to mitigate violence according to informal studies we have conducted. And although Wayne St. Pierre screens for reading ability, often by simply asking the offender to read a paragraph or two from a popular magazine, we have no formal test to determine levels of reading skill. We have discovered, in fact, that those apparent levels seem to rise significantly in a few weeks, once the participant gains confidence around the table, once he begins to discover his voice, to recognize himself.
As we developed the ideas in New Bedford, we began to sense that, in part, this literature program offered what great literature always offers: an exploration into the complexity and challenges of human character and conscience, a way to connect with the human community, a way to engage deeply in language and conversation, and a way to make us all more self-reflective. As the judge again put it: "These offenders commit criminal acts, in part, because they operate from a belief system that privileges appetites and instincts over reason and thoughtful choice and that insists that authority is by its very nature a victimizing position. The program challenges this enclosed belief."
It was in this context that participants would be chosen.
The Sentencing Process in the Court
It was all experimental, of course, but the idea was clear.
Wayne would screen potential candidates for the program, making appropriate referrals, and checking with defense counsel and prosecutors. If there were agreement on the defendant's interest and attitude, the prosecutor and defense counsel would then usually search for common ground on a disposition that included the program. After agreement on a recommended disposition to the court, Judge Kane would further consider the eligibility of the offender: his attitude, the source and method of the referral, the risk level, his criminal history, etc.
No doubt the interaction between the probation officer and the judge is central to this early process; in fact, the judge often gives considerable weight to the evaluation from the probation officer. Where the judge finds the referral appropriate, and that is usually the case, the sentencing process next proceeds to contract formation.
Forming the Contract
In the original concept, the CLTL program in New Bedford was clearly established as an alternative sentencing program for offenders headed to jail, but the contract model here is, like so much else, highly flexible and subject to change according to the individual group, the specific court, state guidelines, etc. For us in New Bedford, the overall process for forming a contract could be divided into several related parts, but it is the idea of the contract that needs special consideration, no matter what form it takes.
The contract gives meaning and purpose to the participants in terms of their engagement with the program itself - at least that's how we thought about it. It called for commitment and responsibility, and it allowed rewards for meeting goals. The contract suggested that the CLTL program was a challenge: it was tough but worthwhile. And the contract reminded all the parties that we were all in this together; we were all responsible for this program's success.
How did the contract process work?
First, Judge Kane would define the sentence; for example, he might serve a partially executed sentence (split sentence), or consecutive suspended sentences, or probation. He would also make clear that any violations of the agreed-upon terms could be converted into a fully executed sentence.
Second, Judge Kane would explain that if the offender chose the CLTL program, his jail or suspended sentence would be significantly less lengthy.
Third, Judge Kane would take the time to describe the program's purposes, format, and expectations.
Fourth, he would explain that if the offender successfully completed the literature program, the probationary term would be reduced by six months.
During this whole process, Judge Kane would purposely pause to ask the offender if he understood. Once the program was so explained, the Judge would give the offender an opportunity to think about his choices and to consider their meaning.
Almost all offenders choose the literature program, and they are told that their choice represents a conscious and considered commitment of effort and loyalty to the justice system. In this regard, their agreement to the contract takes on genuinely symbolic implications, making the process part of the overall ritual structure of the justice system and the CLTL program.
Justice and Language
As we developed our ideas about this process and its meaning, we also underscored the importance of language and communication in general. Judge Kane suggested that the selection process transformed the judge and probation officer into communicators. And as communicators, these court officials enhanced the role of justice by emphasizing the use and meaning of the probation relationship. By customizing the contract to the offender's biography, the relationship could, as Bob Kane put it, "startle some offenders into suspending cynicism about the value of the probation relationship."
Judge Kane was right. The process became an important way of humanizing judicial authority, restoring genuine justice. It was a type of ritual that gave special meaning to the connection between the courts and the community. It demonstrated, in public, a clear sense of confidence in the offender, certifying his ability as a citizen.