Alternative Sentencing Program Receives $50K Funding

"Changing Lives Through Literature" alternative sentencing program receives $50K funding to enter 10th year Bucking a three-decade national trend of locking more and more people behind prison bars, Massachusetts is continuing its pioneering alternative sentencing program, "Changing Lives Through Literature." Now entering its 10th year, with $50,000 from the state Legislature, the program has succeeded in stopping costly turnstile prison terms for most of its "graduates."

January 28, 2002 

Changing Lives Through Literature alternative sentencing program receives $50K funding to enter 10th year 

Bucking a three-decade national trend of locking more and more people behind prison bars, Massachusetts is continuing its pioneering alternative sentencing program, Changing Lives Through Literature. Now entering its 10th year, with $50,000 from the state Legislature, the program has succeeded in stopping costly turnstile prison terms for most of its graduates. 

State Senator Mark C.W. Montigny has been instrumental in funding the program for the past four years. The program has proven itself successful time and time again. Money spent on the rehabilitation of people who are incarcerated is money well spent, Montigny said. The program changes lives by teaching men and women that there is a better way of life. Through the study of literature, they learn the fundamentals of reading and also learn to take responsibility for their mistakes. By reading the lessons and stories of others, the program gives people convicted of crimes an understanding of themselves and a direction in which to steer a better life. A program that helps to keep past offenders out of the criminal system and preserve tax-payers money is an asset to us all. 

Professor Robert Waxler, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and Superior Court Judge Robert Kane began the program in 1991 in the shared belief, as Waxler puts it, in the humanizing power of literature. They enlisted Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre in the program, and have been teaching literature to men convicted of felonies in the Third District Court at New Bedford. One class is typically held each semester, and the next class will begin sometime in February or as soon as there are 10 men to fill the class. 

Changing Lives Through Literature, which now includes women, has spread to 11 courts in the Commonwealth, to Texas, Kansas, New York, Maine, and Arizona, even to England. An estimated 1,000 persons have graduated from the program nationally. An independent study of the recidivism rate done by Prof. Roger Jarjoura of the University of Indiana compared CLTL graduates to felons who participated in other alternative sentencing programs. The 18% vs. 42% rate is favorable to CLTL graduates. 

Waxler and Kane believe Changing Lives Through Literature works because some repeat criminal offenders have lacked a voice and a mirror. In CLTL, they find a voice in the dialogue of some of the most memorable characters in modern American fiction. The mirror shows them characters who are very much like themselves: men behaving badly, confronting the consequences, figuring out what went wrong and how to change—or not. 

During the program, the men are monitored by the probation officer; failure to complete the program and any other stipulations results in jail time. Kane says he chooses the CLTL students very carefully, evaluating their readiness for change and ability to read as well as their criminal records. All of the men in CLTL have prior felonies, including crimes of violence. 

For many of the men, Waxler says, these books—Sea Wolf by Jack London, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Deliverance by James Dickey to name a few—are the first they’ve ever read. Certainly they are the first they’ve ever had to discuss in intensive twice-weekly seminars with a judge, a probation officer, and a literature professor. 

According to a New York Times (Jan 21, 2002), prison budgets have been the fastest growing item in state budgets. Since the 1970's the number of prisoners held in state -run facilities has increased 500 percent per year, despite a falling crime rate. There are currently more that 2 million people incarcerated in federal, state and local prisons, for which tax payers spend $30 billion a year.


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