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Common Problems

In many ways, CLTL is a maverick program, outside the usual boundaries of court-mandated activities. That is part of its strength. Like good literature, it is filled with surprises.

CLTL stands as a proven partnership between Higher Education and the Trial Court, reflecting the importance of the humanities in our common struggle for justice and democracy. But since it is not like most other programs, it is often regarded with a very skeptical eye, especially by court officials who often find it difficult to believe that literature can make a difference, can, in fact, serve as an alternative to jail time.

Often, the most difficult problem occurs at the beginning. Someone wants to start a program, is committed to the idea, but cannot find a judge willing to support it.

One judge can make a difference, especially if he has a passion for literature and a willingness to take a chance for community justice. But it is not always easy to find a judge eager to try the program, although we have discovered that if the judge sits in on one or two CLTL literature seminars, she will be persuaded. If you can put the judge in contact with other judges who have participated in CLTL, that too, is often very helpful.

Probation officers and lawyers, including the District Attorney, can also be helpful in persuading the judge that this is a program worth trying. But here, too, skepticism often works its own resistance.

And as one makes these contacts, attempting to get the program up and running, the bureaucracy itself - the demand for additional information, additional plans, additional paperwork - can all work to dampen energy and interest, slowing the process down. We believe, of course, that commitment and endurance are necessary at times to overcome these common obstacles. There is always a network of people out there who do understand and embrace our vision and goals.

There are now several programs that have gotten started without a judge - in community day centers, under probation, or in jails - and at times, this seems the most reasonable way to make initial contact if you are having a problem finding a judge.

We have always urged people to try to get a program started as quickly as possible, not to worry too much about detailed planning. The best evidence inevitably is in the success of the discussions, the energy and changes that can often be noticed almost immediately. With this extensive CLTL website (the one you are on right now), you should be able to find enough information and support to satisfy anyone genuinely interested in helping. The testimonials and evaluations should all boost this effort.

For a personal review of potential problems you may encounter trying to initiate a program, see Susan Blue's essay "Trying to Start a Program in Los Angeles"

Financial support is often a problem.

Budgets are always tight, and budgets often come with turf battles. We do not believe that CLTL is just another program, nor should it be considered as one of the hundred programs the court happens to be running this particular season. CLTL costs very little, but it is obviously helpful to have some money to pay facilitators and to cover other minimum costs.

The success of the program in terms of life changes, and the clear fact that it saves government a great deal of money in potential incarceration costs, should count in convincing people to give what they can; some will give time and sweat, others, we hope, will give material support. In addition to support from state government, CLTL has received funding from national and state grants, private foundations, and, on occasion, concerned citizens.

Locating the ideal space to conduct CLTL seminars is a common problem.

Sometimes, especially when the facilitator is not connected with a college campus, university officials are hesitant to conduct the program on their grounds. Since CLTL is deeply rooted in literature, one solution to this problem is to find another space associated with books and education. If a campus is not conveniently located or if officials are resistant, a library, for example, often serves the purpose, at least on a temporary basis. We are not convinced that the courthouse is a good location for the discussions, unless there is a room that works symbolically as a space separate and unique from the rest of the courtroom process. There is an advantage, we believe, to having college students interact with the probationers, even if it is just in campus corridors. Some colleges now use CLTL as an opportunity for their own students to engage in community service.

Problems occur within the CLTL team, at times.

Since the program does move across established boundaries - the justice system and the education system, for example - there is the potential for conflicts resulting from different approaches. At times, for example, the probation officer, the lynchpin between the court and the facilitator, will see the educational value of a book (or a discussion) in a significantly different way than the facilitator sees it.

The judge, when available, can often serve as the arbitrator, communicating through such differences of opinion, although there have also been times when the judge openly questions the approach of the professor.

On the whole, we have found that the team members share a common perspective and vision, believe deeply in the power of literature to change lives, and appreciate each other's views and opinions. Another common problem that many CLTL groups face is related to transportation and the purchase of books for probationers.

In a sense, the problem here is related to the budget problem.

Understandably, some CLTL probationers have a difficult time getting to the discussion sites. We have provided van transportation at times, and that has usually worked out well. In fact, some of the best discussion seems to occur in the vans. We have also occasionally provided books for the probationer-students.

But again, unless a group has financial support, books and vans are impossible to provide. Naturally, libraries are an option for some, and, in some groups, students are able to give rides to each other.

It is important to make clear, before the group is selected, exactly what will be available and what will be required. Many groups require that the students be responsible for their own books and transportation. This kind of restriction might limit eligibility of course, but it does work for many groups.

How best to address problems of attendance or failure to do the required reading are also issues with which many groups wrestle.

These are thorny problems because we are grounded in a belief in compassion and tolerance, but we also insist on responsibility. CLTL is actually as tough as the offenders in it, and it is worthwhile for everyone to appreciate that.

We have witnessed dramatic conversions in behavior, commitment, focus, and reading skills, and we don't want to discourage this kind of possibility.

Ordinarily, the probation officer, with some advice from the facilitator when appropriate, determines the response to an attendance problem or to lackluster reading. Chronic absenteeism will always result in sanctions, but sometimes there is a legitimate reason for a student to miss the discussions, which is true as well when a student fails to read the book. In these cases, the probation officer could ask for an apology before the whole group and a report on the book missed.

Others problems will also inevitably come up as you work on your CLTL program. We are convinced, though, that the joy and the meaning the program brings far outweigh any problems.

CLTL is challenging, and that too makes it fascinating and endlessly significant.


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