Reading Groups and Troubled Youth

I’m a volunteer for the John Howard Society of Canada, an organization devoted to “effective, just and humane responses to the causes and consequences of crime.” Every second Wednesday, I go to the JHS Kitchener office and work as a negotiator for the Youth Extrajudicial Measures and Sanctions Program—more commonly called Alternative Measures. Volunteers split into groups of two and meet with young offenders (clients) who have broken the law but, in lieu of a court hearing, probation, or jail time, have been offered the opportunity to pay their debt to society through other means. These young offenders are often, though not always, accompanied by a parent or guardian, and during a typical hour-long meeting, we (the two volunteers, the client, and a parent or guardian) discuss the events that occurred, their societal implications, the reasons behind the event, and the best way for the client to make up for their crime. youth_bible_reading

Clients must suitably complete three tasks in order to successfully complete the program. These are YOUNG offenders. Our goal isn’t to “punish” them in such a way that they’ll “regret what they did.” Rather, we work with these youths, recommending certain courses of action, but discussing their interests in order to agree on a suitable task that they can learn from—and maybe even enjoy. The various volunteers have different preferences, but I typically ask the client to attend a JHS workshop (on either property crime, drugs and alcohol, or anger management), complete a writing project, and an additional task that we negotiate together.

These clients may complete a Gratitude List that asks them to write down five things they are grateful for every day for 15 days, or a movie review that explores themes about trust or integrity in a variety of films; for youth with creative interests, we’ve accepted paintings, flash animations, sculptures, and amateur films, asking only that these creative options are accompanies by a brief written description. Although there is a book review option, this isn’t particularly endorsed. You see, these kids aren’t typically ‘big readers.’ Rather than ask them to do something as ‘arduous’ as reading a novel, we want them to enjoy their alternative measures tasks . . .

Yet there is a program in the USA that takes the opposite approach to reading and juvenile alternative measures: Changing Lives Through Literature. In New Bedford, Massachusetts’ Fall River Juvenile Court, Probation Officer Michael Habib and Judge Bettina Borders recommend juvenile offenders attend a reading group in lieu of community service—it’s worth noting here this is a sentence for these youths’ probations; whereas, with the Youth Extrajudicial Measures and Sanctions Program, the clients will never see a judge or get sentenced; the Canadian kids have it a lot easier. Habib and Borders organize reading groups for these youth to come in and discuss issues that affect their lives—for example, the lack of male role models in any of these kids’ lives. Like the numerous adult Changing Lives Through Literature Programs I’ll discuss in a future post, this program’s aim is to take kids out of their comfort zone, have them engage with a work of literature that they wouldn’t normally read, and have them discuss the implications of the book in a group environment–Judge Borders is present, as is their probation office, Habib.

One particular book that found success in the Fall River Program is Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier. This autobiography charts one young man’s journey through political upheaval, kidnapping, and genocide . . . all at age 12. Michael Habib believes that this is a book that gets kids thinking about how many opportunities they really do have in this world—beyond the challenges of poverty and street life that they already face. I wonder if this book would have a similar impact on kids here in Canada? We’re assigning kids to write, paint, animate, and film . . . and yet there’s a real avoidance of assigning them to read. Organizing a reading group is also not an option.

Literary alternative measures programs in the United States, like the Fall River Juvenile Program, are reducing offender recidivism and increasing parolee school enrolment, and no research has been done on the potential benefits of humanities education in Canadian alternative sentencing programs. The project I’m currently working on seeks to answer the following: despite the wealth of evidence for the success of American alternative sentencing programs, why do no programs like this exist in Canada? Is it possible to establish similar programs in a Canadian context? What are the barriers for successful, Canadian post-secondary prison education entering our justice system? What is the state of the humanities in Canadian prison education?

Please leave your comments. Especially any notes you have towards cultural differences between Canada and the US that I should remember when researching. Or maybe you have a book recommendation?

4 thoughts on “Reading Groups and Troubled Youth

  1. I just thought I’d share a bit more about Judge Borders from last year’s Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) Winter Newsletter:

    Judge Bettina Borders

    Judge Borders’ early career was an unconventional one
    and this gives her a particular sympathy with the
    teenagers she works with. At nineteen she married, had
    her first child, and dropped out of college. After her
    second child she divorced. Though a single mother
    throughout her undergraduate years, she was also active
    in community and women’s issues. In l973 she started
    the country’s first rape crisis center in Connecticut.

    Believing strongly that “a woman needs a terminal
    degree,” she pursued a law degree and then practiced
    law for fifteen years in New Bedford. When she became
    a judge at the Juvenile Division of the Massachusetts
    Trial Court, she was prompted to consider how to make
    the lives of teenagers richer and more focused. She felt
    it was important for each young client to be able to read
    a book and experience some quiet time in the midst of
    their chaotic lives. She began a CLTL class of
    delinquents: “These were kids who had no control over
    anything. Reading and contact with adults enabled
    them to see beyond their own predicaments.”

    Judge Borders tries to keep a balance between the adult
    criminal justice system, with its emphasis on
    punishment, and the laws written for younger offenders.
    She explained that these laws state that juveniles should
    be treated with the same consideration “you would give
    to one of your own children.” To help achieve this
    balance, Judge Borders likes to pair a teenager’s Risk
    Assessment Profile (which is long and tells you nothing
    positive) with a “strength-based approach,” one
    centered on a teenager’s abilities and interests.

    Judge Borders’ insights into the girls she works with are
    interesting and surprising. She says, “Adolescent girls
    are angrier than boys. They turn this anger against
    themselves, making them harder to deal with.” She
    went on to say that “The girls have no real options.
    They often end up pregnant which makes them more
    trapped than they already are. Boys turn their rage
    outward which may make them less law abiding but
    also easier to deal with.”

    Judge Borders has a strong sense of constructive
    compassion. It was fascinating to hear her talk about
    the problems of juveniles and how these human issues
    are then dealt with in the legal system.


  2. Hi Allan: Thanks for mentioning the Fall River Juvenile Program, Its’ exemplary. CLTL started juvenile programs long after the initial programs for adults. But those juvenile programs are crucial, I think. When high-risk teens get excited about literature, they often find their voice; and they can teach us a lot.


  3. It’s unfortunate that reading isn’t used in the program. The fact is that some kids are simply not given enough credit and are never introduced to books in an appropriate fashion. They never have a chance to experience them and what they have to offer.

    While the US and Canada have many apparent cultural differences, we’re definitely more similar than different. I think we have a lot to learn from their programs, and they from us.


    1. antiSWer: thanks very much for your insight here. I’m under the impression that there are vast differences in terms of poverty and access to social programs in Canada and the US. And these differences contribute to more crime and poverty. Though I’m also under the impression that literacy levels, per capita, are lower in Canada amongst prison inmates. I’m concerned that this will impact my study and would appreciate any feddback/resource advice you can provide.

      Thanks again!


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