National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.


 Reading programs offer alternative to jail

By Charles Taylor

For Johnson County, Kan. libraries, reading is more than fundamental. It’s also an important part of the county’s toolkit for addressing criminal justice issues.

The Johnson County Library’s award-winning Literature in the Justice System program is helping to lower recidivism rates for inmates and probationers — and providing a lower-cost alternative to locking up offenders. It comprises three outreach efforts.

Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) provides an alternative to secure detention for teens and adults; Read to Succeed is a literature program for incarcerated teens; and Stories about Women — and Stories about Men — is an adaptation of Read to Succeed for adult jail inmates. The programs were recognized by the American Library Association for Excellence in Library Programming in 2008.

Across the country, county libraries are forging partnerships with courts and jails to provide money-saving alternatives to incarceration. Fairfax County, Va. and Brazoria County, Texas also have CLTL programs. The concept was co-founded by Robert Waxler, an English professor at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, in 1991. There are now programs in at least nine states and the United Kingdom.

CLTL programs can differ from state to state, but the common element is that participating offenders read books and discuss them in a facilitated group, some of which include a judge and probation officer. The Massachusetts program has been so successful that it’s been adopted by courts statewide and funded by the State Legislature.

"I would love to see this program operating in every county, and I don’t say that because of any particular ego, I say it because it seems to work," Waxler said. "It’s cut recidivism rates significantly…with juvenile programs and adults."

Fairfax County’s program has "exceeded expectations," said Jamie McCarron, director of probation services for the county’s juvenile court system. More than 70 percent of kids who go through the literature program "don’t reoffend." Elizabeth Gillespie, director, Johnson County Department of Corrections, said: “No official recidivism data exists at this point, but Johnson County Corrections officials are beginning to collect this information.” 

Photo courtesy of Johnson County, Kan.

Young offenders (faces blurred) in Johnson County, Kan.’s Changing Lives Through Literature Program pose with court, library and juvenile justice officials. They are (l-r): Judge Kathleen Sloan; Kate Pickett, Johnson County Library; and Donna Bounds and Marlys Shulda, probation officers.


"It is about the healing power of narrative. It is about being able to tell your story," says Wendi Kauffman, an English professor who facilitates the program in Fairfax County. Pat Hassan, development projects coordinator for Johnson County Library, says the books allow offenders to see themselves in the characters they read about. "They begin to see that the choices people make lead to consequences."

Program advocates say another important aspect of CLTL is putting offenders on a level playing field with authority figures, like the judges who participate. "In the group, you’re not wrong, you’re not necessarily right either, but your opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s," Mitchell Rouse, an ex-offender who participated in the Brazoria County program, told the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

Johnson County began its CLTL program with a group of teenage girls in 1999. It was an outgrowth of budding juvenile justice reform efforts in the county. Fairfax County’s program was part of the library’s response to a community needs assessment that by the Board of Supervisors that showed an uptick in juvenile recidivism and gang activity, according to Katie Strotman, a programming coordinator for the Fairfax libraries. It started in 2007.

Johnson County’s program is a seven-week series of weekly, two-hour literature workshops for adults and juvenile offenders, separately, who are referred by the District Court. Discussion groups of eight to 12 offenders meet in a library branch or corrections office. Fairfax County’s program for juveniles, also at a library, lasts 10 weeks and operates on a budget of about $3,000 per session. Last year, the program received a $37,000 grant from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) to expand CLTL; it also was a 2008 NACo Achievement Award winner.

Both counties’ program costs are minimal, aside from staff time: Their CLTL programs are funded by grants or library foundations, and in-kind donations. For example, it cost $12,270 to serve 70 participants in Johnson County’s program in 2009, a per capita cost of about $175. In contrast, it costs $37,960 to incarcerate a person for one year in Johnson County’s jail or $25,127 in a state prison, according to county library officials.

Participants are screened for reading ability. JCL’s and facilitators also choose books that are available as audio books for offenders with poor reading skills.

A wealth of resources on starting a program are available on the CLTL website, including bibliographies and a sample syllabus. The works suggested by the Massachusetts program include novels, short stories, plays and poetry, such as Affliction by Russell Banks, which deals with alcoholism and family violence, and House on Mango Street, a "poetic novel" by Sandra Cisneros, about Mexican-American women growing up in Chicago. However, local programs are free to choose works that better fit their target audiences.

In addition to lowering recidivism rates, the programs have been reaping results that are harder to measure. Kaufmann, the Fairfax County facilitator, recalled a young girl’s experience with the program.

"One mom was used to getting a phone call almost weekly from her daughter’s school, and she hadn’t heard from the principal in a couple of weeks," Kaufmann said. "And when the principal finally called, he called not to tell her that her daughter was doing something wrong, but to say, ‘What have you done that’s changed? We cannot believe the change in your daughter.’"

The mother credited the CLTL program.

Waxler’s belief in the program includes a willingness to help other localities start programs. "I would be happy to at least talk with them and give them whatever encouragement I could, even come out to the county or the community they’re in if they think that might be helpful," he said. He can be reached via