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An Evaluation of the Changing Lives Through Literature Program

Brazoria County CSCD

Submitted To: Dr. Lawrence Jablecki, Director Brazoria County Community Supervision and Corrections Department

Submitted By: Dr. William R. Kelly, University of Texas


The link between educational and cognitive deficits and criminality has been well documented (Andrews and Bonta, 1994; Kelly, 2000). The criminogenic properties of such disadvantages are assumed to operate through the impact on employability -- all else equal, individuals with educational and cognitive deficiencies are less able to secure gainful employment and thus have a heightened risk of engaging in criminal behavior. Similarly, criminal offenders that lack basic education are at a higher risk of recidivism.

Educational programming is a prevalent component of correctional treatment and rehabilitation in the U.S. for both institutionalized populations as well as offenders on community supervision. The focus of most correctional education programs has been on providing basic education to offenders with significant academic deficiencies, and high school and GED degrees to those with more than minimal academic skills and achievement.

A variety of evaluations have been conducted primarily on prison-based correctional education programs. These studies have generally supported the conclusion that such programs are effective in reducing recidivism as well as producing other positive outcomes such as enhanced employment and continuing education (see for example, Gerber and Fritsch, 1994; Gaes, et al, 1999; and Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, 2000).

Research evaluating the impact of education programs has generally focused on prison based programs. On balance, having evaluated more than ninety studies of the impact of educational and vocational programming on recidivism, post release employment and education, and institutional adjustment, Gerber and Fritsch (1994: 11) conclude with appropriate methodological cautions:

"...research shows a fair amount of support for the hypotheses that adult academic and vocational correctional education programs lead to fewer disciplinary violations during incarceration, reductions in recidivism, increases in employment opportunities, and to increases in participation in education upon release."

Research by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council also indicates that inmates who participated in Texas prison education programs had higher post release employment rates and lower two year recidivism rates.

Gaes et al (1999) identify several ways in which improving offenders education may positively impact recidivism. These include:

  • Enhancing reading and writing skills to a level of functional literacy may increase the probability of lawful employment, in turn, increasing the chances for offenders to remain crime free.

  • The education process itself may produce positive consequences (maturation, conscientiousness, dedication) that may be helpful in reducing recidivism.

  • Exposure to literature, science, and humanities may help the offender develop a more appropriate frame of reference for evaluating life choices.

  • The education process also allows inmates to interact with civilians in a nonauthoritarian, goal-directed context.

  • Overall, most evaluation research of correctional educational programs has focused on prison-based programs. Much less is known about the impact of community-based education programs. Moreover, nearly all evaluation research of educational programs has focused on the impact of educational achievement (e.g., increasing achievement test scores and improving reading levels) and attainment (e.g., earning a GED). We know little about the impact of efforts to improve cognitive skills, problem solving skills, and other more subtle changes that accompany the educational process.

    Changing Lives Through Literature

    The Brazoria County Community Supervision and Corrections Department's (CSCD) Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was developed by Dr. Lawrence Jablecki, Director of the Brazoria County CSCD. The CLTL Program was adapted by Dr. Jablecki from a similar program operated in Massachusetts. The CLTL program differs significantly from traditional correctional education programs. Rather than directly focusing on educational attainment and achievement per se, the Program uses literature as a vehicle for cognitive and behavioral change.

    The CLTL Program is a community-based, alternative sanction education program designed for eligible probationers (minimum criteria include at least an 8th-grade reading level, not being an active drug user, and not being on probation for murder or a sex offense). The Program is voluntary and the primary incentive to participate is the awarding of 75 hours of CSR for successful completion.

    The CLTL Program is six weeks in length and consists of weekly meetings or seminars during which the participants engage in a facilitated discussion of the reading assignment for that session. The two-hour class meetings typically occur on a local community college campus. The discussion, which is aided by discussion questions, is focused on the meaning and application of the assigned reading with the intent being the subtle development over time of cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, as well as self examination, insight, awareness, etc. The CLTL Program has been described by one of its instructors as "therapy without thinking its therapy."

    The CLTL classes are gender segregated and the assigned readings differ for males and females. Males typically read and discuss philosophy (e.g., Socrates and Plato) and females typically read and discuss contemporary, gender targeted works (e.g., Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison).

    Research Objectives

    The Consultant was contacted by Dr. Jablecki and was asked to conduct an evaluation of the CLTL Program. The Consultant met with Dr. Jablecki and two other program instructors, was briefed about the specifics of the Program, and was informed about several broad evaluation goals. After that meeting and a review of written Program materials, the Consultant was asked to independently design and conduct the evaluation. The Consultant determined that a qualitative approach, based on in-depth discussions with CLTL completers as well as Probation Officers and District Court Judges was the most appropriate research strategy. This determination was based primarily on the goals of the research which generally focused more on questions of why and how the Program impacts participants. It was the level of depth and detail that the research goals required that led to the decision to conduct qualitative research with CLTL graduates and Probation Officers and Judges.

    The goals of this research focused on several key questions about the CLTL Program. The questions for Program graduates included:

  • How has CLTL changed or impacted your life (discuss specific ways and the impact on other aspects of life; not just a criminogenic focus, but an overall quality of life focus as well)?

  • How has CLTL helped keep you out of the justice system (again, in detail, what specifically about the Program has facilitated staying out of trouble)?

  • What aspects of CLTL were more or less beneficial or valuable?

  • What are the perceptions about follow-up (e.g., after care or what next)?

  • What suggestions are there for changes to CLTL (format, curriculum, logistics, etc.)?

  • Specific questions for Probation Officers and judges included:

  • How does CLTL compare with other probation programs and how has the Program affected participants they know?

  • What are their perceptions about the anticriminogenic properties and other aspects of the program?

  • What are their recommended changes to the Program?

  • Is the capacity of the Program sufficient?

  • Evaluation Methodology

    The Consultant determined that focus group research was the most appropriate method for collecting the information necessary to address the research goals. The focus group method consists of structured, moderated discussions of between 10 to 15 individuals. The discussions are directed by the moderator according to a predetermined list of questions, referred to as a focus group discussion guide (copies of the program graduate and PO/Judge discussion guides are provided in the Appendix of this report). Focus group discussions are preferable to one-on-one interviews because of the interaction and evolution and refinement of ideas that occurs among the participants.

    A total of five focus group discussions were conducted: four with program completers (a total of 49 program completers participated in the research) and one with Probation Officers and District Court Judges (consisting of 8 POs and 2 Judges). All focus group discussions were moderated by the Consultant, who has extensive experience moderating over 75 focus group discussions. The table below presents the dates, times, locations, and number attending each focus group discussion.

    1/23CompletersCSCD Conf. Room1490 min.
    1/24CompletersCSCD Conf. Room1490 min.
    1/24PO/JudgesCSCD Conf. Room1060 min.
    1/24CompletersAlvin CC Conf. Room1290 min.
    1/24CompletersAlvin CC Conf. Room990 min.

    Lists of Program graduates were distributed by the Brazoria County CSCJ to POs and the officers were asked to select probationers for participation in the focus group discussions from those lists. The procedure for recruiting participants appears to have resulted in a representative sample of Program completers (i.e., POs were simply asked to select participants without regard to their performance in the Program or any other criteria).

    Although we do not have statistical profiles of the research participants, the groups appeared to be well balanced in terms of age, gender, race/ethnicity, and time since Program completion (the range in terms of completion was two months to nearly four years). The participants for the PO/Judge focus group were selected by the Director.

    Key Research Results

    The research results are presented separately for CLTL Graduates and POs/Judges. The presentation is organized roughly according to the order of the questions in the discussion guides (see Appendix).

    CLTL Graduates

    Reasons for Enrolling and Initial Impressions

    Nearly all focus group participants acknowledged that the reason they agreed to enroll (the program is voluntary) in the CLTL Program was because of the 75 CSR hours that are awarded for successful completion. Most also expressed initial skepticism about the Program. For example:

    "This is a joke."

    "I was not enthusiastic."

    "I thought it would be boring."

    "This is gonna suck."

    "Hey, its 75 hours."

    The vast majority of the focus group participants. reported that their initial skepticism quickly vanished.

    "...its pretty cool."

    "I was really surprised."

    "I started looking forward to it."

    "I really liked going [to the sessions]."

    Most research participants agreed with the following statement.

    "I didn't think I would, but I really liked it."

    How is the CLTL Program different from other Probation programs?

    Most of the responses to this question involved comments regarding how traditional Probation programs are primarily punitive, how CLTL participants were not treated or perceived as offenders, and that the CLTL Program was not punitive in its focus or intent.

    "I'm not treated like a criminal."

    "It's not judgmental."

    "I'm not talked down to.'

    "We're treated like real people, with respect."

    "It makes you feel like you matter, like you count."

    "They listened to me."

    "It makes you think and CSR doesn't."

    "CSR just makes you angry."

    "Other programs are dehumanizing and belittling."

    Perhaps the most telling statements about the difference between the CLTL Program and other Probation programs are the following:

    "It's not punishment -- it has a purpose."

    "It's more focused on helping us."

    "It is constructive."

    "This program is the only program that actually helps offenders."

    "It's the first time anyone cared."

    What do you like about the CLTL Program?

    Many responses overlapped with the answers to the question of how the Program impacted their lives (discussed in more detail below). Several referred to discoveries of others' (their colleagues and the characters in their reading assignments) opinions and circumstances, discoveries that provided different/new perspectives on their own lives.

    "It opens your mind to other experiences."

    "It lets you see other peoples lives and you realize, hey, I'm not that bad off."

    More specific Program attributes that were well liked include: separate classes for men and women, holding the class sessions on college campuses, the fact that the classes were conducted by college professors rather than POs, and that the discussions were interactive (not just lectures).

    What do you not like about the CLTL Program?

    There were few answers to this question despite repeated attempts by the moderator to elicit comments (and repeated assurances of confidentiality). The most common limitation cited by the participants was that the Program was too short (many want the program to last longer than six weeks). A few would like the individual class sessions to last longer.

    How has the CLTL Program changed/impacted your life?

    Common responses include the educational opportunities/incentives that the Program provided, enhancement of cognitive and interpersonal skills, and increases in self esteem and a sense of accomplishment.

    Many spoke of an increased desire to read and learn.

    "It gave me a desire to learn."

    "It motivated me to want to go to college." "I really like to read now."

    "It inspired me to read more."

    "They gave us a book when we graduated. I still read it."

    A few stated that the Program did not change their lives. However,. these same respondents did report that they benefited from the Program in more subtle ways, such as thinking that the Program was nevertheless positive and constructive -- they learned something.

    Respondents. were also asked if they thought the impacts of the Program were transitory or enduring. Most stated that they thought the effects would persist, and that belief was also held by respondents that had been out of the Program for a year or more.

    Statistical Ratings of the Program

    Respondents were asked to rate the Program and various aspects or components of the Program with a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 means poor and 10 means excellent. The statistical summary of the ratings is provided below.

    The results show very high ratings for the Program as well as various components including the assigned readings, class discussions, the program format/logistics, the other participants in the Program, and the instructor. These results support the results of the data collected during the focus group discussions -- the participants evaluate the Program very highly. These results also support the participant's belief that the key to the Program's success is the instructor. The instructors are described as eager, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and non-judgmental, who drew people out and encouraged participation. It is probably fair to conclude from the focus group results that the benefits from the Program flow mainly through the instructor. The other aspects of the Program are important, but the instructor is critical.

    ITEM ------------- Mean Score

    Overall Program ----- 9.4
    Assigned Readings --- 8.5
    Class Discussions ---- 9.4
    Program Format ----- 9.0
    (Location, Lenth)
    Participants ---------- 8.9
    Instructor ------------ 9.7

    Recommended Changes to the CLTL Program

    The focus group participants were asked to recommend changes to the Program. While there were not many suggestions, there was general agreement in those that were offered -- make the Program longer and offer a second course. Several stated that the Program was over before they knew it, hence the desire to make it longer. 'Nearly all research participants indicated that they would take a second course with the same format but different -readings. Moreover, while this should be taken with a generous handful of salt, nearly all participants stated that they would take a second course and that they would take it without being awarded CSR hours!

    Probation Officers and Judges

    One focus group discussion was conducted with eight Probation Officers and two district Court Judges. The research findings reported below generally follow the order of the questions in the PO/Judge discussion guide (see the Appendix). Note that this discussion, unlike the participant discussions, lasted only about 60 minutes, so several items from the discussion guide were omitted from the discussion.

    How is the CLTL Program different from other Probation programs?

    Participants provided a rather long list of other probation programs that they use such as Day in Prison, shock incarceration, substance abuse treatment (CRTC, SAFP), batters program, parenting classes, jail therapy, boot camp, and the ISF, among others. The POs and Judges acknowledge that most other probation programs are generally punitive in orientation. While acknowledging that different programs are appropriate for different clients, the CLTL Program is viewed as a positive experience, that enhances self esteem, respect, and creates a sense of accomplishment.

    What about the CLTL Program do you believe is of particular value?

    The respondents believe that there are a number of important benefits from the program, including creating an open, egalitarian environment for discussion, and providing opportunities for participants. For example:

    "It's an open discussion and all are on a equal footing." "People listen to each other."

    "They are being heard in a positive environment."

    Typical comments about the opportunities the Program provides include:

    "It's an opportunity to take a step in the right direction."

    "It opens their eyes -- there is another world out there."

    "It's a door [an opportunity]."

    "They think and see outside of the box."

    The POs and Judges describe the CLTL as focused on self discovery and insight, and dealing with issues and topics that are personally relevant to the participants.

    They also report that they believe that holding classes on a college campus is valuable.

    "They see the real world. "

    "Its an alternative reality."

    How has the CLTL Program changed /impacted participants?

    POs and Judges report that the CLTL Program can have significant impacts o n participants, including acquiring important interpersonal skills and changing participants' attitudes.

    "They learn mediation, compromise and problem solving."

    "I have seen changes in attitudes in those that have taken it" [Are they more compliant? Has their general behavior improved?] "They seem to do better."

    Several respondents noted that a common outcome of completing the CLTL course is an enhanced interest in education.

    "[Several POs report that clients say things like] "Can I take another class?" "Can I get more education?"

    Recommended Changes

    The only change suggested by these respondents was to increase the capacity (or number) of the male classes.

    Most agree that this is not the silver bullet solution. Some think the title (Changing Lives) is a bit ambitious:. Nevertheless, there is a clear consensus about the benefits the Program provides, and there is widespread support for the Program among the POs and Judges that were interviewed.


    The results of this evaluation are remarkable, both in terms of the overwhelmingly favorable reaction of the research participants and in terms of their level of understanding. of what it is about the Program that is perceived to be effective. There is little doubt that this is a very popular program (there are currently about 45 probationers on the Program waiting list), that receives very high marks from those that have graduated as well as those that supervise and sentence them.

    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 that extend well beyond the fact that graduates received CSR hours. These include:

  • 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

  • it is reported to have clearly identifiable, enduring impacts on participants

  • - increased desire/motivation to read and learn

    positive psychological impacts such as increased tolerance, enhanced self esteem, and a sense of accomplishment anti-criminogenic effects 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 that developed, operate and support the Program.


    It is highly unusual that I complete a program evaluation without a long list of recommendations. However, this is an unusual case. The CLTL Program enjoys widespread support and it appears to be working extremely well.

    A few potential changes warrant, brief discussion. One is to consider lengthening the Program from six weeks to eight or ten weeks. This obviously increases the burden on the instructor and it is not clear that the benefits to the participants would increase in a linear fashion as the Program duration increases. On balance, there do not appear to be sufficiently compelling reasons at this time to extend the length of the Program.

    Another proposal is that of a second, follow-up course, designed for probationers who have completed the original course. However, it is not clear that the benefits gained would be in proportion to the increased number of class hours and cost to the Department. Again, short of a more compelling rationale, it does not appear reasonable to move forward on this initiative.

    What may be reasonable to consider is identifying and bringing on board an additional instructor to teach a section of the course from time to time to help alleviate the backlog of probationers who have volunteered to take the Program. The data collected for this evaluation indicate that -there are approximately forty-five eligible individuals who are on the Program wait list and that there is a concern on the part of POs and Judges regarding capacity for male participants - too many male clients wanting to take the Program and too few spaces available for them. As the Program continues to enjoy remarkable success and support, there will be additional enrollment pressure. It appears wise to consider addressing this issue in the near term.


    Andrews Donald and James Bonta. 1998. The Psychology of Criminal Conduct. 2nd Edition, Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing;

    Gaes, Gerald, Timothy Flanagan, Laurence Motiuk and Lynn Stewart. 1999. "Adult Correctional Treatment." in Tonry and Petersilia (eds) Prisons, Volume 26, Crime and justice: A Review of Research, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Gerber, J. and E. Fritsch. 1994. "The Effects of Academic and Vocational Program Participation on Inmate Misconduct and Reincarceration." Chapter 3 in Sam Houston State University, Prison Education Research Project: Final Report. Huntsville, TX: Sam Houston State University.

    Kelly, William R. 2000. " Criminal Justice in Texas: Past and Current Policies, and Alternatives for the Future," Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research, University of Texas, Austin.

    Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council. 2000. "Impact of Educational Achievement of Inmates in the Windham School District on Recidivism." Austin, TX.

    Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council. 2000. "Impact of Educational Achievement of Inmates in the Windham School District on Post-Release Employment." Austin, TX.


    Focus Group Discussion Guides

    Discussion Guide: CLTL Participants

    Intro -Introduce myself

    Why we are here and purpose of discussion

    Emphasize that negative comments are as important as positive (I'm not here just to hear good things)

    Importance of candor and honesty

    Assure confidentiality (your comments will not be linked to you and thus will have no bearing on you)

    Ice Breaker -- WRITE NAME ON CARD, tell us your first name and something unique about yourself or something you are proud of.

    1. We have fancy theories, but I'm very interested in your thoughts about what causes people to get involved in criminal behavior? What are the most common reasons people get involved in crime?

    2. Ask R's to provide overview of CLTL program. Discuss how it works and the components.

    Readings (relevance, meaning)

    What are discussions like?

    Lessons from the readings?

    Application of reading to individual lives?

    3. How is the CLTL program different from more typical criminal justice programs? What are more typical programs like? What makes this different? How does this address the issues you mentioned in Q1? How does that work?

    4. What do you particularly like (find valuable) about the CLTL program? What do you not like?


    Take a few minutes and think about a CLTL reading or discussion (if any) that was particularly memorable; that had an impact on you.

    Discuss. Why? What impact? What lesson or message? What insights? What "light came on"?

    Is this something that you think will endure or last? Why or why not? What could help make it endure?

    6. How, if at all, has the CLTL program changed or impacted your life. Discuss specific ways.

    Problem solving, communication, and interpersonal skills? Decision making, making choices Interest in learning and education? Interest in reading?

    Addiction and drug/alcohol use?

    In terms of crime and criminal offending? In terms of relationships? In terms of values and responsibilities? Other?

    7. Evaluations of overall program and components. Using a scale from I to 10, where 1 means poor and 10 means excellent, please rate the following on this sheet of paper PROVIDE EVALUATION SHEET AND ASK TO TAKE THEIR TIME

    Program overall

    Program content/curriculum/readings


    Program format (meeting location, frequency, time)

    Instructor Participants

    8. Discuss program component evaluation results? Talk about each one and provide details. What is it about....



    Format (location, time, frequency of meetings)

    Participants? Instructor?


    What do you have today that you did not have prior to your participation in the CLTL program? (skills, ways of thinking, ways of viewing the world, values, etc.).

    10. What suggestions do you have for changes to the program (curriculum, logistics, follow-up or continuation, etc.).

    Changing Lives Through Literature Program Ratings

    Using a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 means poor and 10 means excellent, please rate the following.

    A. The overall program.

    Poor ------------------------------------ Excellent

    1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7 -- 8 -- 9 -- 10

    B. The assigned readings.

    Poor ------------------------------------ Excellent

    1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7 -- 8 -- 9 -- 10

    C. The class discussions.

    Poor ------------------------------------ Excellent

    1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7 -- 8 -- 9 -- 10

    D. The program format (Location, time, frequency of meetings).

    Poor ------------------------------------ Excellent

    1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7 -- 8 -- 9 -- 10

    E. Your classmates -- were they appropriate?

    Poor ------------------------------------ Excellent

    1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7 -- 8 -- 9 -- 10

    F. The instructor.

    Poor ------------------------------------ Excellent

    1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7 -- 8 -- 9 -- 10

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