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Choosing the First Group

Once a team is in place and judicial authorization secured, the judge, with the help of the probation officer (PO), needs to choose participants for the first group.

Since we believe CLTL is primarily an alternative sentencing program, we recommend, when possible, that such sentencing be done directly from the judge's bench, choosing for the group those criminal offenders who would otherwise be headed back to jail.

The PO, working with the judge, helps screen candidates for the CLTL program and makes recommendations to the judge - with the agreement of the prosecutor and the defense counsel - then the judge discusses the sentence with the offender and others, finally deciding, in each case, whether the CLTL program will become part of a split sentence, consecutive suspended sentence, or straight probation.

When appropriate, the judge also decides whether the offender will be granted a reduction in jail time or in the suspended sentence. With the successful completion of the program, the offender might also receive a reduction in probation time - often as many as 6 months.

In this process, the PO also checks for basic reading ability and draws up a contract outlining the responsibilities and required commitment of the new CLTL student.

As a factor of the growth and diversity of CLTL programs over the years, the sentencing process typically has become determined by each individual court, and in some cases, the creation of a group itself is primarily the responsibility of the POs or other court officials. At times, POs will make CLTL part of the mix of programs they are running, from day-reporting centers to general education classes.

At its core though, CLTL remains an alternative sentencing program for criminal offenders headed toward jail.

When forming a group, we recommend that it be single-sex, with a range in age if possible, and with 8-10 offenders to start.

Although individual programs have proven very successful with more than 10 students (often breaking into smaller groups for discussion) and with as few as 4 participants, we believe that a group of 8-10 works well for discussion and seems to be the standard. Keep in mind that in addition to the 8-10 offenders, you will often have 3 team members, as well as visitors, around that table for discussion.

Between the time of sentencing in the courtroom and the beginning of the literary discussion on the campus, it is not unusual for 2 or more offenders to experience difficulties that prevent them from joining the group. If the goal is to start with 8 students, for example, it is best to recommend at least 10 participants to start.

When putting a group together, it also worth noting that, in general, a men's group is usually larger than a women's group, and more women than men seem to leave the program before it is finished. On the whole, there seem to be more men than women coming into the courts for sentencing, and the women chosen for the program often have a more difficult time attending the program than the men because of the kinds of logistical and social problems they face.

We have not encouraged mixed-sex groups because we have generally believed that the choice of books and the topics for discussions often work best with single-sex groups. We have run mixed-sex groups, however, and met with considerable success with those groups.

When the group is being formed through the judicial process, the team members also need to consider where the literary discussions will take place. We favor a seminar room on a college campus, if possible. The college environment provides an important, sometimes dramatic, setting for the CLTL experience and signals a change from the courthouse, the neighborhood, and previous schooling.

In addition to participating in a seminar discussion on a college campus, the criminal offenders mingle with the students in the corridors, feel as if they are part of the college experience, and often sense the privilege of being part of the college environment.

In this context, a formal or informal agreement with a college to lend support to the program gives additional authority and value to the CLTL process and serves as a significant reminder of the partnership between the Criminal Justice System and Higher Education.

In the start-up phase, however, if a room on a college campus cannot be found, we recommend a room in another intellectual environment, such as a public library filled with books.

Video (may take a few moments):

Founding Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre explains how he chose the original group of probationers for CLTL (video).

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