Crime And Punishment: “Changing Lives Through Literature”

Judge Willmore of the 1st District Court in Logan, Utah may just have the right idea: impose a meaningful sentence on offenders, which will positively impact their lives and give them an incentive to make the right choices in the future. Judge Willmore does this through rehabilitation through education, when he requires offenders to read and, on occasion write a report on, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as part of their sentences.

Les Misérables, Hugo’s tour de force exposes the societal ills of 19th century France through an intertwining story of lost youth and redemption. It is a story of hope for those who have done wrong in the past and an example of how acts of kindness can turn evil into good. An excellent read for those in trouble and who want to turn their lives around.

Such alternative sentencing options are unusual in a system that prefers deterrence to rehabilitation, yet the idea of using literature to rehabilitate is not a “novel” idea. In Massachusetts, for example, a Judge has the ability to sentence an offender to a special program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.” To be eligible, the offender must consent and must not be a sex offender or convicted of murder. Once ordered to this “treatment by books,” the offender must attend a three-month course, taught by a College level professor, wherein they read up to 6 novels. After completion of the course, the offender discusses the novels with the Judge, the Professor, and the other offenders who are participants. By all accounts, the program has been successful and has peaked the interest of other Districts across the United States. Although, I have found reference to the program starting in Canada, I have not been able to confirm this.

The idea of rehabilitative self-improvement has been used beyond the courtroom as well. The “Books Through Bars” program in California sends “quality reading material to prisoners and encourage creative dialogue on the criminal justice system, thereby educating those living inside and outside of prison walls.” The program itself has expanded to provide publication opportunities to prisoners, prison libraries, and other educative forums.

The Canadian justice system would benefit from such forays into literature as rehabilitation. Certainly the sentencing regime found in the Youth Criminal Justice Act could provide a platform for such unique sentencing programs. Clearly, education goes hand in hand with self-worth, which many offenders are lacking. The therapeutic effects of a “good read” should not be underestimated and need to be explored in an era where traditional sentencing practices seem an incongruous fit with today’s society. Perhaps it will be only a matter of time and, of course funding, before we see the positive effects of “doing time” through reading but in the meantime, read Les Misérables for yourself and enjoy the educative effects of good literature.