Reading for Life

*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the Crime Solutions website.

In considering the key takeaways from the research on this program that other mentoring programs can apply to their work, it’s useful to reflect on the features and practices that might have influenced its rating as “Promising” (that is, a program that shows some evidence that it achieves justice-related goals when implemented with fidelity).

A “novel” strategy for supporting juvenile offenders

Out of all the mentoring programs that have been reviewed for Crime Solutions over the years, few offer as interesting or creative a program model as Reading for Life (RFL). The program, which targets non-violent juvenile offenders, is built around a concept called “virtue theory.” This theory posits that social institutions can use facilitated conversations and other opportunities for exploring values to essentially teach “virtues” (such as discerning right from wrong) to individuals who may be “deficient” in their understanding or application of these values. This theory is somewhat aligned with other, more widely adopted concepts, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, where the intention is to teach the individual how to think more clearly, effectively, or morally in certain situations. The main idea in this program is that juvenile offenders may be lacking in “virtues” that can help them make better decisions or avoid situations where they act in antisocial or morally unacceptable ways. There have been other programs serving juvenile offenders that have built their work around teaching youth “how think better” as a “transformative” experience, so RFL does have some analogous peers in the world of mentoring.

Where RFL really goes into some rare directions is in how they go about facilitating these conversations about values and virtues. The program uses classic works of literature—novels, poems, etc.—to teach youth about the seven classic virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, fidelity, hope, and charity. Groups of youth and mentors meet twice weekly to discuss these works of literature and engage in writing exercises that drive home the understanding of the targeted concepts. The groups then plan and implement a community service project that embodies the lessons learned by the groups.

The strategy here is really compelling and something that just about any mentoring program could incorporate: Using classic works of literature to get youth reflecting on their values and how those values play out in their everyday lives and their communities. In some ways, this is what every decent English lit teacher has been doing since the dawn of time. But it’s fairly unusual to see a mentoring program building their work around this kind of application of art to life. The fact that it culminates in a service project that both demonstrates and reinforces the youths’ understanding of these concepts is particularly intriguing.

And this arts-meets-reality approach is something that many mentoring programs could adopt, especially in the form of a less-intensive “book club” or other reading group that could explore moral questions while also exposing youth to great literature. It is worth noting that the mentors in this program underwent extensive training on both the theory behind the program and the practical aspects of leading these discussions and writing exercises. They also shadowed an experienced mentor for 12 weeks before leading their own groups. Clearly, not every program will be able to implement this at the robust level that RFL has done. Still, most mentoring programs could easily explore how classic works of literature might lead to the types of illuminating discussions and reflections on values and character that RFL tries to facilitate.

Is this approach right for all offenders? Or other groups of youth?

A major unanswered question for the RFL program, and this kind of approach in general, is for whom exactly this program can be effective. In the evaluation referenced in this review, the population was limited to non-violent offenders for whom a typical “diversion” program was an option. For many good and valid reasons, the program was not offered to youth who were facing more serious criminal justice involvement (although it’s worth noting that there is a version of the program offered to incarcerated juveniles, although that version was not evaluated here). So the program was mostly being used as an alternative to typical community-service-as-usual offerings, which often do not ask much of their participants other than just putting in their time. The sample here also tended to be heavily female, mostly due to the exclusion of youth with violent offenses, who are overwhelmingly male.

The program did seem to be most effective for youth who had more serious offenses as well as those whose characteristics might make them more likely to reoffend (males, lower-income families, etc.). For these youth, the recidivism rate was considerably lower than their peers in the business-as-usual control group that participated in community service. But unfortunately, the evaluation doesn’t answer the question of whether something like RFL could work with youth who were engaged in more serious or violent criminal activity (those who might be most in need of a refresher course on values and virtues). It also is unclear if other interventions might have been as or more effective than RFL. The comparison to standard diversion activities, which offer almost nothing resembling a corrective or developmental experience, represents a fairly low bar. Yet, at present, mentoring programs with rigorous evidence of clearing even this threshold when it comes to juvenile crime prevention are in extremely short supply.

Indeed, based on the evaluation conducted here, RFL clearly has tremendous potential as a strategy to reduce recidivism among youth who have low-level juvenile justice involvement. Hopefully future evaluations will examine the efficacy of this approach for more challenging populations and in direct comparison (or even conjunction with) other interventions for juvenile offenders.

However, it's worth noting that the program here did reduce recidivism significantly compared to standard community service. And given the low cost and creative flair of the program, one would hope that these ideas would spread to other programs in other locations. The evaluation makes a convincing case that, although the program is three times more expensive than typical diversion efforts, the improvement in recidivism rates more than pays for the cost, especially in comparison to community service programs that have a track record of poor recidivism results. Any program that cuts subsequent prosecutions for re-offending in half is likely to be viewed very positively by policymakers at all levels.

A good example of tackling the difficult world of data collection on juvenile justice involved youth

Usually these “insights’ pieces focus on how the program structured their services. But in this instance, we’d like to call attention to the work of the evaluators here for their excellent efforts to tackle the data challenges inherent in determining if a program was effective for juvenile justice-involved youth. What complicates this work, beyond just setting up treatment and control and noting all of the participant characteristics where they might differ (age, gender, income level, etc.), is that juvenile offenders can have myriad statuses within that system. They have all got into some trouble with the law, but some were just arrested. Within that group, they may have been arrested for a felony or misdemeanor. Others were arrested and prosecuted, while still others were prosecuted but not convicted. Some had their cases dismissed outright, while others are recommended for diversion instead of a prosecution. And all this happens on both the front end (how they wound up in the treatment or control group) and on the back end, when the program has to determine how well it worked and what exactly constitutes “success” across the many conflicting and complicated statuses. There is also the age factor, in which some participants may be juveniles for their first offense, but wind up tracked in the adult court system for subsequent offenses. So needless to say, this is not easy for programs or their evaluators to track!

The methodology section of this evaluation report can provide other programs and evaluators with some great ideas on how to track and differentiate all these different statuses. They clearly explain how they categorized juvenile offenders based on their juvenile records (and the variations within) and how they attempted to integrate adult records around recidivism as needed. They also explain the three groups they establish early on to examine program effects for: 1) The largest group assigned to treatment by a certain date, 2) results at one year from treatment for the newest participants, 3) results at two years from treatment. They also note that those who had been out of treatment longer had a longer time period to reoffend, so they explain how they weighted the results to make the numbers a more accurate reflection of the program’s overall impact on recidivism. There is also a great explanation of how they categorized the different levels of “intensity” of recidivism: arrested at all, prosecuted and non-prosecuted misdemeanors and felonies, total number of arrests, prosecutions, and convictions, etc.

Most program evaluations spend considerable time explaining the sample and the various characteristics of the participants, but this evaluation does a wonderful job of illuminating the complexity of juvenile justice data in particular and as such can be a valuable resource for other programs and researchers in thinking about how best to measure and report true program effects using the complicated and nuanced data.

A missed opportunity to explain more about the program

While the description of the methodology of this study was extremely illuminating, the description of the program itself was, unfortunately, fairly minimal. While the basics of the program are described adequately, there is very little information about:

  • Who served as mentors and how they were recruited
  • The sequence of the conversations and activities
  • The training topics and materials that mentors were provided
  • The types of books that the groups read and discussed

There is a program website that talks about the program in more detail, including several reading lists that are used in the program and a collection of additional research that describes the program in more detail. Practitioners that hope to do something similar in their programs should go beyond just the evaluation report and look at these other materials to learn additional details about how this tremendously creative program made this innovative idea work in practice.

For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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