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.

Where Has Redemption Gone?

I was listening to Robert Greenberg's outstanding DVD course on classical-era opera when the subject turned to Mozart's Don Giovanni, a masterpiece, not only in music, but in narrative as written by the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Don Giovanni, is a dramatization of the Spanish neer-do-well, Don Juan. In the opera, the Don seduces or rapes, depending on your point of view, the daughter of the local Chief of Police. The Don arrogantly and thoughtlessly kills the Chief, who was defending his daughter's honour. In the backdrop, acting as the Don's moral conscience, is his cowardly servant, Leporello, who berates the Don for his unseemly crimes.

From there, the play moves through the three "R"s; revenge, refused redemption, and finally, retribution, as the ghost of the slain father, in the form of a cemetery statue, destroys Don Gionvanni.

Don Giovanni is not just a delightful feast for ears and eyes but is a present-day reminder of the power of revenge, retribution, and redemption in our criminal law. In H. L. A. Hart's classic book of essays, entitled Punishment and Responsibility, the concept of retribution is uncovered, analyzed, and redrawn, as Hart makes a case for punishment connected to criminal liability and guilt. Since 1968, when Hart first published his theories, sentencing has gone through many reforms; moving away from retribution and revenge and toward the goal of rehabilitation through redemption.

But has this reform in sentencing worked? Is redemption possible? Is rehabilitation workable? And if not, are there punishment alternatives which still preserve the dignity of an individual while encouraging redemption? These are but a few of the questions we must ask before the Canadian government enacts the proposed sentencing "reforms."

Perhaps it would be helpful to look globally at our closest legal system, the UK, for an answer. The Ministry of Justice Structural Reform Plan, published, in 2010, a Green Paper on sentencing reform entitled Breaking the Cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders. The Government's response , recently released in June 2011, has some surprising recommendations, which I will discuss in tomorrow's blog. I will, however, conclude with a teaser question: is redemption dead?