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Twice a year, in courtrooms across Massachusetts, regular proceedings are temporarily put on hold for graduation ceremonies. Recently in Dorchester District Court, Judge David Weingarten opened the ceremony.
"It’s actually a really good day for people to be in court to celebrate the completion of this program and to honor the accomplishments of the students," he said.
The students are no strangers to the courts — they're all on probation. But on this day they're before a judge, most of them are smiling, because they've completed what's called the Changing Lives Through Literature program. It's a college-level literature course that's also an alternative sentencing program.
If they successfully complete the 8 to 12 week course, a judge agrees to reduce their probation by six months. While there are slight variations among the 25 classes held in Massachusetts, most of them are led by a facilitator or instructor, a probation officer and a judge.
Judge Weingarten recently led the men's program in Dorchester.
"In the class, I'm not Judge Weingarten," he says. "I'm expected to do the readings and participate in the class ... but the main thing is that the facilitators try and build a safety within the group that allows people to have very candid discussions."
Books Spark Dialogue, But Students Learn From Each Other
Among the female Dorchester graduates is Latoya Duckett. She says even though she's only 23 years old, she's been in a lot of legal trouble. But she believes this class will help her turn her life around.
She said she learned that in life, it's important to "just stop, think before you do any action."
"Because that was me, I just act before I think," Duckett said. "I’m getting older now, and you know, you don’t want to keep getting in trouble. So, you know, think before you do things."
Duckett and seven other women met weekly for this fall's course at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Their syllabus included books such as "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet Ann Jacobs and short stories by Zora Neale Hurston.
"I'm getting older now, and you know, you don't want to keep getting in trouble. So, you know, think before you do things."Latoya Duckett
Facilitator Tam Neville says the literature is really just a tool to help provoke thoughtful discussion and to develop relationships.
"They learn more from each other than they do from me or from the reading, but you need both those other things to get it going," Neville said. "The best part is the community that they put together, that comes together."
That community is evident throughout the two-hour class, as the women talk and laugh, often share food, and reflect on what they're reading.
Pamela Pierce, a probation officer who helps run the class and actually drives some of the students there and back, says her participation helps change the students perceptions of the criminal justice system — and of themselves.
"People end up thinking differently so they're not out committing crime again," Pierce said. "And others here are supporting them and saying, 'That wasn't really bright wasn't it?' And they're thinking about changing the thought process. It really does reduce the rate of recidivism."
Stats Back Up Program's Effectiveness
The research on Changing Lives Through Literature backs that up. A 2011 study of more than 600 participants showed a dramatic drop — almost 50 percent — in re-offenders compared with probationers who did not participate. Pierce says the relationships developed during class discussions help foster trust.
After six years of being on and off probation for various offenses, Abby, 24, was among those graduating. During one of the classes, she had shared some of her writing.
"I actually wrote this five years ago when my uncle passed away, and my mom read it at his eulogy because I couldn't do it," Abby said. "He was a very particular man, always keeping to himself but making a precious greeting whenever he entered the room. His eyes always having that same majestic sparkle as a young child, but with a hint of age and fright. It was as though he was silenced, never to say a word. The aged man walked suddenly by and with a gentle smile he opened the gates."
As Abby accepted her certificate in Dorchester District Court, she told the audience that the class made her think about returning to the path she was on — that of a high school honors and college student.
"I think the camaraderie of the girls that we had in the class was awesome, I met some great, great girls," she said. "And I think I might go back and finish my last year of college now."
The room broke out in applause.
Changing Lives Through Literature started in 1991. With the $25,000 it will receive from the state this year, it will run 25 programs this spring. The program has also been replicated in more than a dozen other states and internationally.
This segment aired on February 4, 2015.