"Reading for Life" Helps Juvenile Offenders

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A Notre Dame-based program using literature to start conversations about virtues has generated what a National Public Radio (NPR) blog post has called “an incredible story about second chances for juvenile offenders.”

See the video from the "Experience Michiana" program aired on WNIT on Oct. 29.

The program, “Reading for Life,” has been reaching out to young people through the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) of St. Joseph County, IN, for over five years. Developed and overseen by Dr. Alesha Seroczynski at Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives (IEI), Reading for Life was adopted as an alternative to community service and a way to reduce recidivism among adolescent offenders.

For the past three years, Seroczynski and colleagues have been studying the effects of the program in a controlled experiment with random assignment. Among 100 offenders who have participated in the twelve-week structure of assigned reading and mentor-led group discussions, only six have had another run-in with law enforcement after they completed the program. Of those six who were identified as possible reoffenders, only one was prosecuted. Community service, the more typical route for youths who have committed non-violent offenses like shoplifting, has a significantly higher rate of recidivism, and many participants don’t even complete their assigned term of service.

According to Peter Morgan, J.D., executive director of St. Joseph County’s Thomas N. Frederick Juvenile Justice Center in South Bend, “Reading for Life has been more successful in diverting young people from the juvenile justice system than traditional programs such as community service. The program’s success makes it very cost-effective.”

Seroczynski points out that Reading for Life is not a literacy program for teaching reading skills. “The goal is to develop character, to enhance the moral compass of these young people so they can make more virtuous life choices.  If we grow a young person’s heart, better academic and relationship choices are often sure to follow.”

As explained at the Reading for Life website, youths randomly selected to participate in the program enter small groups headed by trained mentors. The groups read and discuss books that offer vibrant examples of seven key virtues—charity, fidelity, fortitude, hope, justice, prudence, and temperance. Seroczynski has developed a list of two dozen books that have been used—from contemporary works like Crank and Ready Player One to classics like A Wrinkle in Time and Lord of the Flies.

The program received attention as an Aug. 29 posting on NPR’s “Participation Nation” blog, a site that spotlighted initiatives in community engagement across the country. The item was written by Amy Jobst, assistant director of Reading for Life at the JJC. She provides daily oversight for the mentors and sessions being conducted in various locations around South Bend and assists Seroczynski in her ongoing scholarly research monitoring the success of the program.

The initiative has already proven compelling to more than 40 volunteers who have been trained and approved as mentors to lead the group discussions. Intergenerational mentoring is encouraged; some lead mentors include retired teachers and counselors, a youth pastor, a delivery driver, and graduate students. Undergraduates who learned about the service opportunity through local campus channels also volunteer. RFL has even created a “junior mentor” program for adolescent graduates who want to return to groups as a peer mentor.

As the program expands—it is now offered to youths in detention for more violent offenses as well as those whose lesser offenses customarily would not call for incarceration—Seroczynski is hoping to build her pool of senior, experienced mentors from the community. Morgan says that mentoring is easier than some might think because there is ample training and because the group discussions are primarily “a conversation with the author” of the book being read.

The real-life success stories that come out of the groups’ transformative discussions can prove inspiring not only to those who operate the program, but to the juvenile offenders themselves, and even their families “Overwhelmingly, parents tell us that they see improvements in behavior. Even before the adolescent is able to recognize the changes in herself, a parent will tell us that the youth shows more self-control, is more diligent in her studies, is choosing better friends,” Seroczynski says. A number of adolescents have emerged from RFL with a deeper love for reading and more “prudent life choices.”

 She adds that the readings and discussions in groups can spill over into improved dialogue between the young people and their parents, and family relationships can improve as parents become part of their child’s journey through the program.