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

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.”


15 thoughts on “Outrage of the Week: Read A Book, Get Out of Jail”

  1. For anyone interested in another view of CLTL, please take a look at our recent blog (cltl.umassd.edu/blog) and our extensive website (cltl.umassd.edu). You will find there, by the way, other evaluations of the CLTL program demonstrating how this CLTL program has affected thousands of citizens in very positive ways. Thanks.

  2. Funny, I saw lots of articles on how bad the prison system is, but none on the success rate of CLTL.

  3. To say I had a ‘drinking problem’ would not come close to describing my situation; it was like calling a field of kudzu ‘greenspace.’ I had at least 8 DUI’s- 5 that the Fulton Cty. Superior court knew of- and I was convicted of DUI, while being a Habitual Offender- 3 DUI’s in 5 yrs. I was looking at a year, easy, in prison. My lawyer, on his own, had me ‘evaluated’ by an ‘alcohol/substance abuse counsellor.’ Basically, he found that I drank a lot, and that I felt my main problem was that I was in jail. He and the attorney came up with a plan, and presented it to me as I was waiting to see the Judge (Richard Hicks). I was to be monitored with a device that would test my breath’s alcohol level; attend group therapy 2X/week; attend AA 3X/week; be on probation for 5 yrs. I was to pay all costs (which were roughly $650/month in 1994; I noticed during that time an ad for leasing cars, and noted I could have leased a Jaguar for what I was paying). The judge agreed, and I haven’t drank since. (There are other details, like the wire to the monitoring machine shorted out, had to have another court appearance, monitoring co. looked like idiots, etc., etc., etc.)

    Point is, that ‘proactive’ plan put forth by my attorney saved me: I doubt I would have survived a stay in jail, but if I had I really doubt I would have stayed sober once out. I cannot say that this course should be normal, common, advised, for anyone else; but it worked for me. And part of the reason it did, was fear: prison was not an attractive option, for me. A couple of weeks sober in the county jail also enabled a few neurons to spark, which gave me enough sense to have some shame of my predicament. By the time of my trial, I was physically, mentally and spiritually ready to try to right my situation.

    Now, you really have to experience jail to get how degrading incarceration is for all involved, inmates, staff, everybody. I like to say that of all the people I’ve come across there (numerous overnight to 28 day stays), many may not have been guilty as charged, but none were innocent, either. Probably half that I have seen are not affected, at all, by being locked up: 3 hots & a cot is better than they have been able to provide for themselves, despite all their scheming. Maybe 10% are remorseful, the rest are hoping for their bullshit lines to pull them through. The staffs always manage to make the smallest maneuver degrading, and I’ve found them to be meaner than all but a few inmates: cruelty for the fuck of it. Inept to the point that it has been rare that I have been called by my name (a common Irish surname) at any of the 7/day roll calls; they can’t read it. My point here is I would find “therapeutic jurisprudence” to fit an extremely small segment of the perpetrator population.

    Jail, and the threat of prison, saved my life. Those who have extensive records, however, have demonstrated their ability to cope with incarceration, and I think we should most often give them the chance to practice what they’re good at. It may be expensive, but the ‘alternatives’ are way more costly than the dollars spent show.

  4. By all means, I encourage readers to take a hard look at U. Mass’s “Changing Lives, Changing Minds” blog. It is a pitch-perfect example of pro-defendant activists who thoughtlessly, mindlessly view every felon as an entrapped innocent needing nothing more than the compassion and the “special relationship” they (it’s all about them, of course) egotistically provide. And you’re paying for them to have these meaningful experiences with felons! More above.

  5. “A. Anonymous”: thank you for sharing your story. I’m in no way opposed to drug court and other types of alternative sentencing, with three caveats: 1. they must be administered by professionals, not “community based activists” (better still, they should be administered directly by the corrections agency, not by private parties); 2. people who commit burglaries and other so-called “non-violent” crimes should not qualify; 3. any public conversation about these programs must include discussion of the costs of crime victimization, not just the benefits to prisoners.

  6. “It is a pitch-perfect example of pro-defendant activists who thoughtlessly, mindlessly view every felon as an entrapped innocent needing nothing more than the compassion and the “special relationship” they (it’s all about them, of course) egotistically provide. And you’re paying for them to have these meaningful experiences with felons! More above.”

    You’re simply wrong. The Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog is a resource for educators, graduate students, probation officers, and judges who seek knowledge through a dialogue about reading. Not every reader/subscriber to this blog particpates in a Changing Lives Through Literature course.

    Also, by citing Leah Price’s article as your only investigation into CLTL, you’re actually making a lot of broad generalizations about who participates. CLTL doesn’t look at “every felon” as “n entrapped innocent” at all. In fact, these felons need to meet specific criteria in order to qualify for the program. For example, sex crimes are never referred to CLTL.

    What’s your solution? Put every criminal in prison without any investigation into the causes of crime? This type ofsentencing works and it DOES change lives. Not only that, but it’s almost never in leiu of sentencing, it’s usually a way for offenders to knock 6 or so months off of their sentences.

    I’m outraged at your lack of research.

  7. Sigh, let me lay this out again. CLTL is a PUBLICLY SUPPORTED venture. You can call it a ‘resource for knowledge-seekers’ or you can call it a pork pie, but it and everything bearing its name is still a program to keep convicts out of prison or get convicts out of prison early.

  8. “I’m outraged at your lack of research.”

    I’m outraged at yours. This program is based on assumptions. On wishes, really.

  9. Tina,

    Thank you for creating this site and using your time and energy to inform others of the problems with the criminal justice system.

    I want to let you know about the latest news I heard concerning the Shamal Thompson case. Last week a local TV station aired a story that included an interview with the DeKalb District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming. When asked why Thompson was allowed to receive first-offender status for his burglary charge in 2006, Fleming said it was because his conviction in Gwinnett County had not been properly entered into the computer system used to keep track of such things. Of course that still doesn’t let DeKalb off the hook, as I imagine there are other ways to check for such information. And it certainly does not let Judge Becker off the hook. Gwinnett confirmed the person who was supposed to enter Thompson’s conviction was aware there was a problem when they attempted to enter the information, but apparently it was never corrected. The TV reporter did not interview anyone from Gwinnett on camera, nor did he interview Judge Becker (big surprise!).

    I am so glad you used the Thompson case as a springboard to launch this site and bring up the corresponding issues. This case provides clear examples of the failings of the criminal justice system, how criminals con their way through the system, how the media will pose and ask a few questions but not really hold the proper people accountable when it involves violent crime, and how a tolerant and naive mindset of a victim opens the door for criminals to pounce.

    “I don’t want him to think we don’t trust him.”

    What haunting last words. That’s a line to remember any time you feel the least bit threatened.

  10. Jenni Baker’s letter to the editor was printed today in the NY Times’ Book Review. Turns out ol’ Jenni is “a marketing and media adviser” to CLTL. Makes mention of “the proven capacity of good literature to reform criminal offenders,” without offering such proof, of course.

  11. This is too scary. Why can’t they read the literature OFF CAMPUS????? That is ridiculous to allow them on campus. Geez. What kind of risk is that for the regular students? Maybe I am wrong, but aren’t books items that can be moved or carried easily?? Let the criminals read in a halfway house or area where they are away from non-criminal folk, or read in the freaking jails. My mom had a great idea, let the prisoners all over the U.S. work to pay their living costs. Build furniture, sew, whatever….to help the homeless or people who have lost their homes to disaster. And on site, at the prison…. Also, no internet or cable ahould be allowed. I just found an inmate on FB who originally found his victims online!!! He is not supposed to be on FB. Yes, it is the same man.

  12. Everyone loves what you guys are up too. Such clever
    work and coverage! Keep up the fantastic works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to our blogroll.

  13. Reopen the state mental hospitals that the ACLU forced to shut down back in the 1980s . I’m living in an open air mental institution . Democrats will end life on earth.

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