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{Updated} Aesthetic Tragedy, New York Times Style: Mime Panic Buttons Defunded in California

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It’s hard to find anything to say about this story that the New York Times has not trumped simply by writing it:

A Safety Valve for Inmates, the Arts, Fades in California

NORCO, Calif. — Fifteen men darted across the room, their faces slathered in greasepaint, reciting lines from “Tartuffe.” The stage, such as it was, was a low-ceilinged recreation room, and the cast was a troupe of felons who had just stepped in from the dusty yard of the California Rehabilitation Center . . . Two years ago, arts in corrections programs were a mainstay of prisons across the country, embraced by administrators as a way to channel aggression, break down racial barriers, teach social skills and prepare inmates for the outside world.

Or, maybe not.  Though such activities are supposed to reduce recidivism, Times writer Adam Nagourney acknowledges “there is no conclusive research on that.”

No conclusive research.  No conclusive research, not anywhere in the vast offender-validating, crime-denying rabbit warren of California higher education?  Not one, single, believable, peer-reviewed study subsidized by all the drooling millionaires of PEN?

In other words, despite the best efforts by armies of superlatively funded academic researchers, nobody could cook up a justification for spending money on those “arts coordinator[s] in each of the 33 California state prisons, overseeing a rich variety of theater, painting and dance.”

“[The] programs have become a fading memory,” the Times laments.

Once, in the golden age of not long ago, there were mimes teaching Moliere on your dime to child molesters; felons riffing Tartuffe with tax dollars.  Now, no more.

Mime tear.

Tartuffe, incidentally, is a play that happens to be about distrusting expressions of virtue, and authority in general.  So maybe the problem isn’t “the arts.” Maybe the problem is the art being taught, and who is doing the teaching.  The Times story inadvertently serves as Exhibit A for this theme:

Only two prison arts programs are left in California, and both rely on volunteers and private contributions. The one here is run by the Actors’ Gang, whose artistic director is the actor Tim Robbins [who] has become nearly as familiar a figure at the prison as the warden himself.

Of course, that “familiarity” comes with a price tag for the rest of us, though you can bet your last button they’re not including our names on the embossed fundraiser invites.  It costs money for Tim Robbins to prance around maximum security reliving old movie roles.  ”The real actors are issued panic buttons to attach to their belts, in case they are cornered,” notes the Times.  Why the “real actors” don’t rely on the curative power of aesthetic accomplishment is not explained. But, enough of that; back to Tim Robbins:

Mr. Robbins instructed the inmates to feel fear . . . “What is Tartuffe afraid of?” he said, wearing a wool skullcap and dressed in black. “Being discovered. Because that would mean jail for him.”

“Something is coming after you!” he said urgently to the inmates as they scampered around. “What is it?”

“Cops!” one inmate yelled.

“Cops!” Mr. Robbins responded, clapping his hands in delight. “Then run!”

How wry, shouting at prisoners to run away from the police.  How, Attica-ey.

Admittedly, Mr. Robbins does have experience successfully encouraging the dreams of aspiring young actors.

Oh, wait, scratch that: Mr. Robbins has experience encouraging the murderers of aspiring young actors who dream of success.

Richard Adan, Murdered by Jack Abbott at 22

Ask the family of Richard Adan.  Adan was a 22-year old aspiring actor and playwright who was brutally stabbed to death in 1981 in his own family’s restaurant by Jack Abbott, a sociopathic killer who was supposed to be in prison but had been freed early because Robbins‘ future wife, Susan Sarandon, and others used their star power to obtain his release {Sarandon, in cahoots with Norman Mailer, helped get Abbott released before she met Robbins; Robbins and Sarandon chose to name their son after Abbott a few years later — the original version of this post was incorrect about Robbins’ attendance at Abbott’s 1982 trial — thanks to Cinesnatch for noting the error}.

Robbins‘s future wife Sarandon said she saw artistic talent in Jack Abbott, so obviously he should go free.  Bolstered by intense lobbying by the New York Times, New York’s literary elite, and PEN, some pathetic, star-struck losers on the New York State parole board agreed to let Abbott go, even though he told his artistic sponsors that he would kill again, which he did, a mere did six weeks after his release.

Jack Abbott, Toast of New York’s Intelligentsia

So, to summarize: in 1981 Tim Robbins‘ future wife Susan Sarandon was among those who helped get murderer Jack Abbott out of prison on the grounds of Abbott’s perceived artistic “talent.”  Abbott immediately satisfied the edgy aesthetics of Susan Sarandon by performing the ultimate act of “outsider” art, stabbing an innocent young man to death outside the man’s family’s restaurant.  The day after the murder, the New York Times ran a glowing review of Jack Abbott’s art (I can’t provide a link: the Times has Stalinistically mopped away this reprehensible little bit of its own history).  Now, in 2011, the Times runs a story about Robbins teaching theater to violent offenders in order to help them gain early release — because participating in programs like this one is all about gaining points towards release, never mind the claptrap about race harmony and self-actualization.

Yet, somehow, the Times doesn’t feel the need to mention Tim Robbins’ previous record with prisoners and arts programs in this story.  Curious choice.

In 1982, Abbott went on trial again. A few of his other supporters, like Norman Mailer, mustered enough big-boy shame this time to cower in the shadows.  But not Susan Sarandon: she continued lobbying for Jack Abbott’s release on the grounds that he was a talented artist.  Robbins’ especially shameless wife showed up daily for the trial in support of her talented murderer.  Later, after she met Tim Robbins, they named their firstborn son after the killer: Jack Henry Robbins.

It is difficult to imagine the degree of callousness it takes to sit in full view of a family mourning for the death of their son while fawning over his killer.  Then, to name your child after the killer?  That should have been the end of those sickos’ careers.  But in Hollywood, Sarandon and Robbins are considered voices of moral authority, not in spite of this heinous inhumanity, but because of it.  Sarandon and Robbins weren’t done torturing and degrading crime victims after the Abbott case, however: they and Sister Helen Prejean made the lives of several other victims hell in the process of making their film, Dead Man Walking.  They grotesquely rewrote and toned down the crimes, wrote the existence of inconvenient survivors out of the story, and invented the killer’s on-screen remorse wholecloth, all under Tim Robbins’ direction.

Robbins chose to disappear victims and crimes.  Why does the corrections system of California permit him to continue using taxpayer resources to perpetuate similar whitewashing today?  The Times‘ story about Tim Robbins’ touching drama academy behind bars carefully avoids mentioning the crimes these sensitive thespians committed.  Reporter Adam Nagourney did not bother to contact the victims of these men, some of them rapists.  He didn’t bother to ask the victims for their point of view on the program.  Isn’t that what reporters are supposed to do?  Instead, we get giggly effervescence (from the slideshow):

The workshops and rehearsals are antic and oddly entertaining: guards can be spotted peering through a window. The inmates, like Matthew O’Day, are animated, campy, energized, liberated and fearlessly engaged, comfortable even playing women in a sea of gang tattoos and muscles.

“Campy, energized, liberated and fearlessly engaged.” “Cops!” cries Tim Robbins, “clapping his hands in delight.”  ”[R]un,” he shouts.  What are these inmates supposed to be learning?  What do they learn in other programs, like Changing Lives Through Literature (see here and here), which is taught by anti-incarceration activists who pen long, weepy paeans thanking their offender-students for enriching their pale, law abiding lives?  Check out this particularly troubling story.

I first became interested in prisoner education programs when my own rapist got cut loose early (to commit more heinous rapes of his favorite prey, elderly women) because he allegedly completed “college psychology” courses in prison, a fascinating accomplishment for someone who also got time off the front of his sentence for allegedly being mentally slow.  Too many prison higher educations programs and arts programs are run like this, and by people like Tim Robbins, who see rapists and murderers only as heroes and rebels striking out righteously against America’s “stultifying, capitalist, fascist state.”

And so, unsurprisingly, the material taught is most frequently about crooked justice and wrongful incarceration.  How, again, is this supposed to rehabilitate anyone?  It doesn’t, as respected criminologists have observed.  Vocational training, GED preparation, 12-step programs — those things often help, and contrary to the fabulists at the Times and elsewhere who claim that prisoners today have no access to enrichment or education, they are available to higher numbers of inmates — and also higher percentages of inmates — than ever.

In contrast, all these fantasy workshops on poetry, Restoration drama performances, and college classes about injustice in America do nothing but stroke offenders’ — and their teachers’ — egos.  Reading news stories about such programs, it is impossible not to notice how the teachers pose as acolytes, blaming society for their students’ crimes and praising offenders for their extraordinarily special talents and insights.  In this program funded by crime victims and other Virginia taxpayers, Andrew Kaufman brings his young U.Va. students into prison to read books like The Death of Ivan Illyich with offenders.  Ivan Illyich, remember, is a story about an unethical judge.  The U.Va. students — girls — coo on command over the offenders’ good manners, while judging their own non-felonious classmates harshly.  How early they learn what is wanted from them.  ”All four women said the residents were far less superficial and more respectful to them than many male U.Va. students,” the reporter writes.  Really?  Did the girls see the offenders’ records?  Does Kaufman also take them on field trips to visit their victims?

No.  Of course not.  In the moral universe occupied by people like this, the only victims are the men behind bars.  ”Cops,” cries Tim Robbins, “run!”  Inmates can still pursue the arts and read books in all of these prisons, of course.  It’s just that taxpayers and crime victims are no longer subsidizing anti-American, anti-incarceration, anti-bourgeoise arts camps for inmates, as they were once forced to do.  ”We enjoyed this real lush period when there was this boom in prison growth,” brags Laurie Brooks, speaking of the time in the early 1980′s when then-governor Jerry Brown forced taxpayers to shell out for “lush” prisoner arts programs.

Remember how well that turned out? Crime rates continued their steady climb until sentencing reform took hold, removing prolific offenders from the streets for longer than a semester  or two.  So why is it that Tim Robbins, one of the most troubling figures of the pro-offender cultism that resulted in unmeasurable bloodshed and suffering, even permitted to go into California state prisons to hobnob with violent felons?  Why do taxpayers  and voters allow him to enter correctional institutions and foment his own special brand of resentment towards authority figures and police?  Why aren’t victims’ groups up in arms?

Tim Robbins

Isn’t one Jack Abbott one too many?


Real Recidivism *Update*

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I received this interesting note from Dr. Greg Little (see yesterday’s post) explaining his research methods in more detail and discussing his findings:

Overall you present a good summary. But I can answer your questions. The study’s subjects all applied for entry into a drug treatment program (MRT) operated by the Shelby County Correction Center in Memphis, TN from 1986-1991. All were felons serving from 1 to 6 years. The control group was formed from a smaller number of individuals who were randomly excluded because of limited treatment slots. The treated subjects were randomly selected to enter…after all the subjects were placed into a pool of eligibles.

So both the study group and the control group were people who had applied to take part in a drug treatment program.  That solves the problem of self-selection, in a way, making the data on the effect of the treatment more reliable, for the main difference between the two groups would be the treatment program, and only the treatment program.

It makes me wonder about the recidivism rates for offenders who didn’t try to apply for the drug treatment program, though (not that you can get a recidivism rate much higher than 94%).  Were they simply not substance abusers?  Were they excluded because of behavioral issues such as violence?  Additionally, felons serving more than six years were excluded from the study, so we don’t know the recidivism rates for them.  Undoubtedly, members of that group include the sorts of violent criminals whose propensity for recidivism is most worrying.  And offenders serving less than a year weren’t counted either.

None of this is to say that the study isn’t valuable, nor that the researchers here are misrepresenting their findings.  But it’s important to be aware of the difference between what a study proves and what it cannot prove.  Too often, the media ignores this difference.  And when the research is conducted by activist organizations with anti-incarceration agendas (not the case here), like the Pew Foundation, or the Sentencing Project, the claims they make are often extremely unreliable.  At best.

Dr. Little continues:

There were no differences between the treated and control groups. There have been about a dozen prior published studies in peer-reviewed journals on these groups covering their time periods from 1 to 10 years after release. We were interested in what honestly happens to these people after 20 years of release. The local government, which we are not affiliated with, supplied the data.

You are correct that the authors (I am the senior author) are engaged in starting programs that reduce recidivism. We all make our living in criminal justice, we are all long-term professionals, and I have been in the field since 1975. All rearrests, only with minor traffic charges excluded, were collected as were all reincarcerations. The criminal justice system has always supplied misleading statistics, and that’s something we have battled for decades and have included such ethically-challenged issues in our textbooks and articles. There is a difference between what could be called “accurate” and what is “true” or “honest,” and we wanted to present a true and completely honest picture of what happens after 20 years. The data were, quite frankly, highly disappointing, but also somewhat encouraging. The real point is that there is a proportion of offenders that will return after their release no matter what we do. Right now, reducing those rearrested from 94% to 81% after 20 years is the best anyone has found. Reducing the reincarceration rate (which is rearrest, conviction, plus new sentence) is from 82% to 61%, also the best ever found. It means even using the best treatment known currently, 81% will be rearrested and 61% will still be reincarcerated. Without using that method, 94% are rearrested and 81% are reincarcerated.

The link to the original full article can be found here:
http://www.i-newswire.com/what-happens-over-twenty-years/21666

As I wrote yesterday, I don’t oppose realistic rehabilitation efforts (who would, really?).  What I object to is using substance abuse as an excuse for crime, which results in untold numbers of offenders escaping punishment simply because they say they’re helpless addicts.  And that doesn’t do anyone, including them, any good at all.  Nor does it help to romanticize criminals, or encourage them to believe that they are victims of society, as so many rehabilitation programs do.  Changing Lives Through Literature, for example, seems less about “rehabilitating” offenders than convincing them that their own convictions were unjust (see here and here).

Unfortunately, such anti-incarceration activists (who are currently in force in the Justice Department, in academic departments, and, of course, in the rehabilitation industry) never change their tune, no matter the evidence presented about the inevitability of re-offending.  Their first line of defense is claiming that recidivism rates are not nearly as high as many believe.  But hand them a 94% re-arrest rate, and they will say it’s proof that prison doesn’t work.  If we never incarcerate anyone, the line goes, then there will be less crime (thank goodness they’re not in charge of the laws of gravity).

A few years ago, I ran into a former co-worker who attributed his ability to kick a cocaine habit to a long sentence behind bars.  He never would have stuck with drug treatment, he told me, if he had not been incarcerated.  Then he listed other co-workers we knew who died young.  He considered himself lucky.  The so-called drug war, and stiff sentencing, doesn’t get enough credit for saving lives.

What do we do with a 94% re-arrest rate?  There’s no one good answer.  But one thing we definitely should not do is keep pretending that all that crime doesn’t really exist.

Semi-Open Thread Friday

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Following is a list of the books convicts might read in Boston’s “Changing Lives Through Literature” program to avoid incarceration for their crimes.    

I have a hard time imagining convicts settling down to read Anne Tyler, or Sylvia Plath, or Annie Proulx (maybe this is punishment), or Anna Quindlan, or Jane Hamilton, or Anita Shreve.  Yet the thought of car thieves settling in with Edith Wharton is weirdly . . . comforting.

On the other hand, how can people who have just skirted jail (and any responsibility for their crimes) in the warm, supportive bosom of “alternative sentencing” find anything of relevance to their condition in Animal Farm or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Aleksander Solzhenitsyn?  Many of these entries beg the question: what, precisely does this book teach other than contempt for the criminal justice system and society in general?

And Down and Out in Paris and London?  The autobiography of an Old Etonian who clocked time slumming in Paris between the Wars?  Are there many comp lit. students on probation?         

Comments welcome, though still moderated.

 

Novels Used in Changing Lives Through Literature

James Agee, A Death in the Family

Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

Russell Banks, Affliction 

Russell Banks, Rule of the Bone

Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street 

Chris Crutcher, Ironman 

Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory

James Dickey, Deliverance

Janet Fitch, White Oleander 

Alexandra Flinn, Breathing Underwater

Jack Gantos, Hole in My Life

Jane Hamilton, Map of the World

Kent Haruf, Plainsong 

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea 

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God 

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees 

Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

Francess Lantz, Fade Far Away

Billie Letts, Where the Heart Is

Jack London, Seawolf

Jack London, The Call of the Wild 

Lois Lowry, The Giver

Bernard Malamud, The Assistant

Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country

Joyce McDonald, Swallowing Stones

Ben Mikaelsen, Touching Spirit Bear

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye 

Toni Morrison, Sula

Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Tillie Olsen, Tell me a Riddle

George Orwell, Animal Farm

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Gordon Parks, The Learning Tree

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue

Daniel Quinn, Ishmael

J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Esmerelda Santiago, When I was a Puerto Rican

Anita Shreve, Strange Fits of Passion 

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Scott Smith, A Simple Plan 

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men 

John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant 

Larry Watson, Montana, l948

Tobias Wolff, The Barracks Thief

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

Richard Wright, Black Boy

Reading With Felons, Part II: A Blog is Worth a Thousand Words

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The people over at “Changing Lives Through Literature” in Boston want you to read their blog.  They feel it will offer insight into the significance of running book clubs for people who commit crimes and have had their prison sentences deferred or reduced by participating in a book club or other taxpayer-funded, higher-education initiatives.

I think it’s a great idea to take a hard look at their blog.  After all, your federal Education Department dollars and Justice Department dollars doubtlessly support this reading experiment, either directly or indirectly (never believe anybody who says that their prisoner outreach is “funded exclusively by private resources”: the Justice Department and the states pony up tax dollars to support every prisoner initiative in some way.  Many of these programs would not exist without funding from the Justice Department’s Weed and Seed grants — federal tax dollars that are spread among the states.  All of these programs require oversight from corrections departments.  And public universities are public entities, as are the courts — it’s all on your dime, one way or another).  

The blog is very informative: in fact, it’s a roadmap of romanticized ideas about “rescuing” prisoners while having meaningful personal experiences along the way.  It also makes my point, better than I could, about the denial of crime victimization practiced lockstep by such activists.  In post after post (and article after article on the organization’s main page), convicts are “citizens” and victims are nonexistent, untouchable, unmentionable — surgically excised.  If you step back from the professionally-designed pages and contemplate the absence of any mention of crime, there is a sort of horror in this systematic erasure of the victim’s experience.

The blog’s first entry neatly encapsulates both the doublespeak of prisoner “outreach” and the shameless fixation on “enriching” volunteers’ lives, while pretending crime itself is not part of the equation:

Much has been said about the difference that Changing Lives Through Literature makes in the lives of criminal offenders who attend the program. . . . What’s not so easily measurable, however, is the impact of CLTL on the lives of the facilitators, probation officers, judges, and other visitors who attend the sessions. In the absence of statistics, personal accounts of one’s experiences with the program are the only measure our organization has to analyze the powerful sway that extends beyond the probationers. . . . In one session, I could see the magic of the program at work through the insights and realizations offered by the participants. I was most astonished, however, to notice the two-hour discussion had changed me as well. I became more engaged in this discussion than in any of my past literature classes. . .

Jennie

And so on.  Comments continue in the breathless voice of personal discovery and ritualistic self-deprecation, spiced with a bit of braggadocio at the thought of close contact with convicts:    

Univ. of Illinois English Department has a program that sends books to prisons, but this sounds much more powerful. It puts us academics in our place!

Libbie

 

We had chosen 10 men with really long records. We had a room full of violent thiefs, with substance abuse problems. Unlike the characters in “Greasy Lake”, they were “bad guys”. . . . I had a lagitimate fear for my own safety. It was a roller coaster of emotion, as by the end, we left shaking hands, and we all knew we had stumbled on something special. 

Wayne

The blog is all about the outreach worker, or rather the quasi-religious (magic) expectations such people bring to the experience of interacting with convicts.  It takes an impressive degree of hubris to imagine that a program that arises from someone’s else’s experience of crime is actually about your own personal growth (even the prisoners slip away beneath the urgent prose of self-awareness).  

But this is hubris with a high social return: this is Boston environs, where prisoner chic never went out of style.

Outrage of the Week: Read A Book, Get Out of Jail

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An unholy alliance between politicians and bureaucrats who want to keep prison costs to a minimum, and liberal intellectuals who pretend to see in crime a natural and understandable response to social injustice — which it would be a further injustice to punish — has engendered a prolonged and so far unfinished experiment in leniency that has debased the quality of life of millions of people, especially the poor.

                                             Theodore Dalrymple, in Not With A Bang But A Whimper

THE NOTION that criminals are merely people who have been misunderstood, or mishandled by society, and therefore need only to be understood, not punished, is so predominant in the criminal justice system that it barely needs to be mentioned, let alone discussed. That discussion ended in the 1970′s, when “alternatives to incarceration” were presented as both a solution to prison crowding and to “the problem of incarceration” itself.

Today, community service, drug courts, half-way houses, Outward Bound programs, boot camps, and mental health diversionary programs are all part of the “treatment continuum” replacing incarceration. Also replacing incarceration are: plea bargains, parole, probation, electronic monitoring, early release, and cases where judges simply “dead docket” charges or otherwise decline to prosecute. There are so many venues for not incarcerating defendants that it is a wonder anyone goes to prison anymore, though prisons are overflowing. And talk of overflowing prisons leads seamlessly into talk of new ways to release prisoners early. Victimization – and crime itself – barely register as a bump in the road.

ALL THIS is bound to affect the perspective of the courts. Alternative sentencing is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can quickly become bad when judges forget that it is their job to protect the public, not merely address defendants’ needs.

In far too many recent courtroom decisions in Atlanta, it is hard to detect any cognizance of public safety on the part of judges. Victims and criminal acts seem to disappear from the record: narcissistic displays of bonding between judges and defendants take their place.

In some cases, the outcome is merely insulting, as when DeKalb State Court Judge Barbara Mobley permitted “N.Z.” (aka “MARTA Girl”) to read her poetry aloud in the courtroom before refusing to rule on the state’s case against her. Through dead docketing the case, Mobley silenced the public. She then turned the people’s courtroom into another platform for “N.Z.’s” artistic expressiveness.

Expression, not remorse, mind you. In the therapeutic courtroom, it is untoward to suggest that a defendant show remorse, and they generally do not. Is there any evident remorse in these lines performed in Mobley’s courtroom by “N.Z.”:

“Bipolar is up and down mood swings, and when it affects me I dance and sing”?

Was that what she was doing to that elderly woman on the train? Dancing and singing for her?

OTHER incidents of therapeutic jurisprudence have ended in tragedy, as when DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia J. Becker let soon-to-be murderer and serial con man Shamal Thompson walk free instead of imposing the mandatory ten-year sentence required for his burglary conviction. The judge was impressed by the “beautiful designs” on a bridal gown website Thompson claimed as his own. So she released him back onto the streets, apparently placing his artistic ambitions and self-esteem over the burglary victim’s experience or Thompson’s prior record or Georgia’s very clear sentencing law (there is no word yet on whether Becker will face consequences for refusing to assign the mandatory sentence in that case).

In an horrific irony, Becker’s inattention to Thompson’s criminal history enabled him to murder Emory cancer researcher and bride-to-be Eugenia Calle, in cold blood, in her apartment, when he should have been in prison.

Any survey of the criminal records of murderers would reveal multiple instances of therapeutic jurisprudence enabling an escalation of violence, and finally, the most violent crime.

THE TERM “therapeutic jurisprudence” is not merely descriptive of a mindset: it is an academic theory and social movement with its own website and academic journals. The definition of therapeutic jurisprudence (searchable on the website) in criminal law (other types are mentioned) makes for lengthy but illuminating reading — illuminating not so much for its clarity but for its studious avoidance of admitting what it is: the latest effort to justify replacing incarceration with community-based rehabilitation as often as possible. One of the cornerstones of therapeutic jurisprudence theory is that the special relationship between the judge and the defendant — the quality of the communication between the two — can positively affect the outcomes of probation and parole. Here is how it is supposed to work:

[T]he judge might say, “I’m going to consider you but I want you to come up with a type of preliminary plan that we will use as a basis of discussion. I want you to figure out why I should grant you probation and why I should be comfortable that you’re going to succeed. In order for me to feel comfortable, I need to know what you regard to be high risk situations and how you’re going to avoid them or cope with them.

If that approach is followed, courts will be promoting cognitive self-charge as part and parcel of the sentencing process itself. The process may operate this way: “I realize I mess up on Friday nights; therefore, I propose that I will stay home Friday nights.” Suddenly, it is not a judge imposing something on you. It’s something you are coming up with so you should think it is fair. You have a voice in it, and presumably your compliance with this condition will also be better. [footnotes excluded]                                                                      

                                 Professor David B. Wexler, “TJ, An Overview” 

Of course, it could be said that it was precisely “cognitive self-charge” that enabled Shamal Thompson to talk his way out of Cynthia Becker’s courtroom. Yet, apparently, it is still not enough that many defendants are able to bypass prison for therapeutic settings: their experience in the courtroom must be self-empowering as well.

WHICH brings us to the first Outrage of the Week, featuring an extreme form of community-based therapeutic jurisprudence and extremely unsettling over-valuing of the judge-offender bond. As the New York Times approvingly reports, some felons in Massachusetts may “choose between going to jail or joining a book club,” a choice, one would imagine, not so difficult to make (and made, one presumes, without input from the victim, who would surely choose differently). This is the landscape of fulsome judge-offender interaction:

In a scuffed-up college classroom in Dartmouth, Mass., 14 people page through a short story by T. C. Boyle.

Of the 14 people, a dozen are male. One is an English professor, one is a graduate student, two are judges and two are probation officers. The eight others are convicted criminals who have been granted probation in exchange for attending, and doing the homework for, six twice-monthly seminars on literature.

Professor Robert Waxler (Waxler this time, not Wexler), who founded the reading program, believes “[t]he stories serve as a mirror for everyone, not just the offenders — the professors, the probation officers, the judge.” On cue, the New York Times reporter raves: “[t]he average court official is more literate than the average convict, but not necessarily more literary: for the judge, too, classroom discussion can be a revelation.”

She cracks the following joke:

Led by literature professors, the program has brought thousands of convicts to college campuses even as the withdrawal of Pell grants from prisoners (who were ruled ineligible for federal college financing in 1994) drove a wedge between the two state-funded institutions where young adults do time.

Get it? Being in college is like being a felon. Especially if there are thousands of them on your college campus, I suppose.

She cracks another joke:

Picture “Remembrance of Things Past” as a literary ankle bracelet that keeps you chained to the desk for months.

Before admitting this:

It’s easy to dismiss the program as utopian, or worse. Waxler reports being berated by parents paying college tuition for the same classes that felons receive free. If the program works, its economic logic is unassailable: running it costs roughly $500 a head, Waxler says, as opposed to about $30,000 for a year of incarceration. But that’s a big if. The most conclusive study, which shows program participants achieving half the recidivism rate of a control group, involved fewer than 100 people. More important, the literacy level needed to participate makes its population a self-selecting one, and even among those students with the skills to participate, many never make it to the final session. On the day I attended, one man missed class because his halfway house had imposed lockdown, another because a new conviction had landed him back in jail.

“ON the day she attended.” The program has been running since 1991, bringing “thousands of convicts to college campuses,” and the best they can do is a limited study of 100 offenders.

I wonder why. Perhaps because it’s best not to look too closely at these things.

“When it’s working,” Waxler says, “this discussion has a kind of magic to it.”