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.
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?