Literature helps Mass. juveniles shorten probationBy HEATHER WYSOCKI , Associated Press
Dec. 28, 2013 12:16 AM ET
BARNSTABLE, Mass. (AP) — Usually the boy in the bright green sweatshirt and the judge in the light blue button-down wouldn't be sitting here, just feet away from each other.
Usually, it's First Justice James J. Torney Jr.'s job to tell the boy what he has done wrong and what will happen to him as a result.
But during a session of Changing Lives Through Literature, a program meant to send juvenile offenders down a different path, Torney is instead playing the role of encourager.
"We want to keep them from coming back," Torney says. "And here I can tell them they did a good job as opposed to always saying they didn't."
Once a week for 10 weeks, a small group of juveniles on probation through the Barnstable County/Town of Plymouth Division of the Juvenile Court, which Torney oversees, comes to the program to have a story read to them by former professor Lisa Franklin, then discuss the issues presented.
In exchange for prompt and complete attendance, they are eligible for reductions in probation length and fees.
Now, Torney and others are working on getting the program — which is currently offered to juveniles in just four counties — to more teens than ever.
"We're expanding it because it works," Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey says. "It works to reduce recidivism, and it provides a better alternative for probationers."
Started in 1991 for adult probationers, the program has since expanded to juvenile courts.
According to a 2011 study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, program participants had a 60 percent reduction in recidivism in the 18 months after graduation. Nonparticipants' repeat offenses were down just 26 percent in the same period.
And, the study found, severity of their crimes also was reduced.
"The majority of juveniles we've had in the program have not reoffended," Torney says.
For many courts, the Changing Lives program is an affordable choice, too. Court staff in Barnstable don't get paid to stay late on class days, and many materials are donated. The only cost is paying a stipend to a professor.
Torney and Probation Officer Shauna Lydon sit in on every class.
"And my opinion or the judge's opinion isn't any more important than theirs," Lydon says.
Because of varying literacy levels and learning disabilities among the teens in the Barnstable groups, Franklin reads the stories to them.
Stories, whether they're about a young boy in Brooklyn combating bullying or about two rival gang members' fatal game of Russian roulette, have morals and themes that clearly resonate with the boys.
"I'm looking for stories these kids can recognize, people they know, their choices, their decisions," Franklin says.
Torney is not one to shun alternative punishments and has a cabinet full of confiscated Xbox video game systems to prove it. But this isn't a punishment, he says.
"I treat it like the carrot, not the stick," he says.
Attendance is voluntary, but if it's consistent through the program, there's a benefit.
Cases with victims involved have less leeway for probation reductions, Lydon says.
But for the most part, successful program participants can get months shaved off their probation periods, fees reduced or curfews lifted.
But more than that, proponents say, they gain a sense of themselves that's very different from what they may hear outside class.
"Some of these kids look at the world in a very different way," Carey says. "For the first time, it gets people to think about some of the choices they may be making."
Barnstable's program meets in the same courtroom where the boys' sentences were handed down.
The room is sparsely adorned and made up of eggshell white walls, bleached pine benches and industrial carpet.
The boys sit in a circle. One boy stares intently at the pages they read, but the others' gazes are elsewhere — on the sleeve of a sweatshirt, on the cars passing by.
But Franklin has an eagle eye, noticing whose eyelids seem to droop the most and swooping her attention toward that boy.
She stalks around the small circle, adopting a thick New York accent for one character and singing the words to a tune sung by another.
"She is such a good reader, that it totally changed my outlook on life," one 15-year-old former participant in the program, from Yarmouth, said.
In October 2012, he was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon after he flipped a desk in class in response to bullying he was experiencing.
The boy was "really hesitant" to get involved in Changing Lives, but it has made a difference. He's now hoping to complete his one-year probation in March trouble-free, he said.
These boys are not perfect. At a class in early December, several did not show up because of illness. The following week, others were out permanently after getting into trouble again.
Attendees are allowed two excused absences, but reoffending means termination from the program.
"There's still an expectation of respect, even without the judge's robes and with an informal tone," Franklin says.
But even in the span of a few weeks, it's clear the opportunity to speak and think in an open setting has changed some of the boys who showed up grudgingly a few weeks earlier.
In the first class, a boy in a black sweatshirt didn't speak until goaded. He sat in his corner, trying to blend in with the surroundings.
But in a later session, he's the first to speak up.
"There's no justice. Neither of them did anything wrong," another says vehemently of the two characters in the Russian roulette story.
In the last session there will be a graduation, where parents "sometimes for the first time" see their children as successes rather than failures, Torney says.
For some, the idea of giving defendants a chance to reduce their punishments seems naive, he says.
But he wants to take every chance he has to keep them out of jail and, hopefully, out of the lifestyle they've begun to adopt.
"I don't want them to end up upstairs (in District Court)," he says. "They're still a little in awe of the system now."