This article by contributing writer Stephanie Leombruno ran in today’s Standard Times and is available in full on the paper’s website.
Twenty years ago, UMass Dartmouth English professor Robert Waxler and Judge Robert Kane came up with a revolutionary idea while playing tennis on UMD’s campus courts.
“We were disenchanted with turnstile justice,” Waxler said, “and we saw an opportunity.”
The two men, along with New Bedford District Court Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre began the program known as “Changing Lives Through Literature.”
In Changing Lives, criminals are sentenced to probation instead of incarceration, and as part of that probation they must complete a Modern American Literature seminar taught by Waxler.
The first class of “students” began the program in the fall of 1991. That class was comprised of eight men with significant criminal histories and 148 convictions among them. Just like the now-38 classes that have followed them, these men met and discussed books for 12 weeks in a seminar-style classroom on the UMD campus, along with Judge Kane and their parole officers.
The results have been impressive. In a 1998 followup study, the first 32 men to complete the CLTL program were evaluated and interviewed. Findings showed their recidivism rate — that is, committing new crimes — to be less than 20 percent, compared to the average recidivism rate of 45 percent.
“Just a few years into the program and we knew we had already significantly outperformed the expectation,” Kane said.
Subsequent studies have affirmed that success. In addition to markedly less recidivism, many of the program’s participants are spurred to go to college.
“They get excited about education,” Waxler said. “It is a great testament to the transformative power of literature.”
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