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Rules and Guidelines

What are the rules and guidelines governing CLTL?

The spirit of the CLTL program encourages tolerance and flexibility. It is a grassroots effort that urges each group to establish its own structures and guidelines within the broad and general parameters first worked out in the original program and modified by each subsequent program as it developed its own shape and identity.

In this sense, any question about "rules," like so much else of value in the program, is open to discussion and debate. The idea of rules generates as many questions as answers. We encourage diversity.

Most team members agree that we want to avoid required tests or papers in the CLTL program; we want to discourage, in other words, any reminder of "the shadow of schooling." It is important to the meaning of CLTL, and consistent with the fundamental goals of the program, to create a positive and intellectually challenging experience for all students that will move them beyond the stereotypes of schooling.

Facilitators or instructors, in particular, argue that without tests and papers, reading and discussion become an end in themselves, an educational opportunity to liberate thinking and reflection. To read and discuss good literature in this way provides an enriched sense of the life of the mind and a chance to generate excitement about reading and thinking.

Many instructors enjoy participating in the program precisely because they feel they are free to engage in an intellectual environment, which is exciting, challenging, meaningful, and unhampered by bureaucratic measures of failure and success. Success, they argue, should be determined by means other than traditional standards of schooling.

Nevertheless, as part of the ongoing conception of the program, a few rules have been loosely formulated in response to inevitable questions:

1. Should we require that students have a minimum reading level before allowing them into the program?

In general, we have set an 8th-grade reading level as a minimum. But our measurements to determine this level are always loose and informal. Can the student read a simple magazine article? Does the student demonstrate interest in reading? We realize that this requirement excludes a significant number of criminal offenders, but we believe that an 8th-grade reading level is often necessary for a rewarding experience with the texts and discussions. We don't want to expose the students who can't read to another failure. Although we have held to this rule in general, some groups have successfully operated at much lower reading levels, using various strategies to include everyone in discussions.

2. Should we require a reading test for students?

We have not adopted or designed any formal reading test to measure reading levels. Often, as part of the screening process, the probation officer will ask the offender to read a short article from a popular magazine simply to check on reading ability and to assess general comprehension skills. That informal test, coupled with an intuitive judgment about the readiness and desire of the offender to enter the CLTL group, is usually sufficient to determine the qualifications of the offender under the loosely constructed rule.

3. Should we restrict the CLTL program to certain categories of offenders?

We established a rule at the beginning of the CLTL program that no sex offenders or murderers would be eligible for the program. Nor could any active drug user participate. We believed that people in these categories could not fully benefit from the reading and discussions. Distracted by their afflictions, they would not be able to focus on the texts or the exchanges around the table. In general, this seems to be the case.

Evidence suggests, though, that almost everyone can benefit in some way from this program, and we are now convinced that anyone who can stay focused can find meaning in the process. Offenders with long criminal histories, with weighty crimes (armed robbery with a mask, for example), with violent backgrounds, have all done well. Offenders battling with their addiction have also benefited.

It is our belief that the reading and discussion of good literature can affect a violent offender as well as a nonviolent offender. Evaluations of the program indicate that CLTL helps alleviate acts of violence at every level.

4. Should we provide books and transportation?

Many groups have decided that students should be required to get their own books, either at a bookstore or a public library. It is their responsibility as part of the program.

The advantage of purchasing a book is that the offenders can write in it, mark it up, and engage with the text. It is their own book to keep; they own it. The advantage of going to the public library is that students can get acquainted with a great institution and acquire a library card, not only for the CLTL seminar but also for the future. The books need to be returned unmarked, however.

Many groups also believe that students should be responsible for their own transportation to the college campus. However, in some cases, this is particularly difficult. The offenders often do not have a driver's license and sometimes live a considerable distance from the campus.

As the first women's group developed, it was clear, given the distance between the court and the campus and other issues unique to the women's need for support, that transportation should be provided. In addition, CLTL groups emerged suggesting that books be given to the students.

When possible, we have now adopted the use of a van for transportation and the purchase of books for a limited number of groups.

5. What about violations of the contractual agreements made through the courts?

Many programs have simple contracts signed by the offenders as part of their commitment and responsibility to the CLTL program.

Whether or not there is an official contract, most programs expect the offenders to attend every session, to read the stories carefully, to come prepared to participate in discussions, and, in general, to engage in the rhythm of the process. Violations of these expectations can lead to sanctions, sometimes a return to jail.

Probation officers ordinarily determine if a violation has occurred and what should be done as a result. If a student misses one class, for example, the probation officer might ask for a book report; two violations might disqualify the student from the current program, with the option of returning to the next program after sanctions. Sometimes, the offender has been sentenced back to jail.

We believe that it is important for everyone to understand that the CLTL program is as tough as the criminal offenders participating in it. It is a privilege to be chosen for these literature sessions, we argue, and that privilege should include a sense of worth, responsibility, and commitment.

Yet we remain aware that flexibility, compassion, and the human heart itself is always at the core of important literature and deep discussions. Contracts and rules can undermine genuine success. Some CLTL groups have operated well without contracts for this reason. In the end, CLTL favors inclusion rather than exclusion and mindful compassion rather than harsh judgment.

6. Should all members of the group around the table be the same sex?

Although we encourage single-sex groups, mixed-sex or coed groups of offenders have also worked well. We encourage single-sex groups because we believe that such groups often make the selection of books and the seminar discussions particularly focused and meaningful to the students wrestling with difficult issues.

However, even if you create a single-sex group, the three core team members are often not all the same gender. A group of women offenders, for example, might have a male judge actively involved in the discussions, or a male group of offenders might be led by a female professor. This mix also needs to be considered, when possible.

We encourage visitors, such as other court officials, lawyers, professors, and friends of the offenders, to attend sessions. They too can be either male or female, despite the sex of the offender group. Visitors should be required to read the stories in advance, though, and be prepared to join in the discussions. We do not want tourists.

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