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US: Reading courses as an alternative to prison

21st July 2010

In Texas, offenders are being sent on reading courses instead of going to prison. Mitchell Rouse, who faced 60-year prison sentence for drug offences, was instead put on probation and sentenced to read. Five years on, he is free from drugs,holding down a steady job and has reunited with his family. He describes being sentenced to a reading group as "a miracle" and says the six-week reading course "changed the way I look at life". 

Rouse is one of thousands of offenders across the US who, as an alternative to prison, are placed on a rehabilitation programme called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). Repeat offenders of serious crimes such as armed robbery, assault or drug dealing are made to attend a reading group where they discuss literary classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar and Of Mice and Men. Of the 597 who have completed the course in Brazoria County, Texas, between 1997 and 2008, only 36 (6%) had their probations revoked and were sent to jail. A year long study of the first cohort that went through the programme, which was founded in Massachusetts in 1991, found that only 19% had re-offended compared with 42% in a control group. And those from the programme who did re-offend committed less serious crimes. 

In Texas, the public have been largely won over by the success rates and how cheap the programme is to run. Instead of spending more than $30,000 a year to keep Rouse in prison, the reading course cost the taxpayer just $500. 

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