JPAM Featured Article: Reading For Life and Adolescent Re-Arrest: Evaluating a Unique Juvenile Diversion Program
May 18, 2016 04:00 PM
“Reading For Life and Adolescent Re-Arrest: Evaluating a Unique Juvenile Diversion Program”
As part of our ongoing effort to promote JPAM authors to the APPAM membership and the public policy world at large, we are asking JPAM authors to answer a few questions to promote their research article on the APPAM website.
By: Alesha Seroczynski
What was the genesis/history of the idea for your research?
About ten years ago, I walked away from lunch with a friend and junior colleague pondering the phenomenon that was Harry Potter at the time. I was especially impressed with the moral lessons found in the novels, and the way adolescents had been completely smitten by the stories. I wanted to find a way to get these character “exemplars” into the hands of youth who need them most, that is, juvenile offenders. The pilot project that grew out of that idea was successful enough to generate funding for a second phase of research with non-violent, often first-time offenders. Because choice is such an important motivator for teens, I moved away from Harry and added a whole host of novels in a wide variety of the Young Adult (YA) genre. I could also see the need to assess reading ability and place the youth into small groups based on their reading comprehension skills. Trained mentors have worked with the youth since inception, and we have enjoyed some tremendously wise and generous mentors over the years. Reading for Life has grown from a little idea into a large-scale, randomized control trial for youth who are diverted away from juvenile court and prosecution into a character education program that keeps them from returning to the justice system.
What is the main conclusion that becomes evident from your research? (Or, what is our main takeaway?)
Reading for Life generates large reductions in the likelihood of re-arrest. Youth randomly assigned to RFL experience a statistically significant 11.2 percentage point reduction in the probability of recidivating, which is a 36% reduction over the control group mean. (Youth in the control condition complete 25 hours of community service.) RFL is particularly successful at reducing more serious offenses; prosecuted felonies fell by 68% over the control group mean. Finally, RFL was most effective with low-income, ethnically minority male offenders—a group commonly considered most at-risk for re-offense.
What are some of the more interesting or surprising findings/conclusions, you discovered during this process?
We are particularly pleased with the last finding cited above, and note the experiences of these young men with their parent(s) or guardians during final presentations at the end of the program. It is very moving to have a parent report that a child is communicating with her for the first time in years, or to hear an adolescent thank his father for the time and resources he has been investing all these years. These exchanges are deeply moving.
Although we do not report this data in the JPAM article, we also collect changes in participants over the course of the program in seven areas of virtuous character: justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, fidelity, hope, and charity. One of our most robust and consistent findings has been that youth who are randomly assigned to the control condition of community service report feeling less “charitable” toward others and their communities after they complete 25 hours of community service than they did before they were arrested. As these results suggest, they also reoffend more offend and more violently. I believe this should compel us to rethink the way we process juvenile offenders—even non-violent ones who have never been arrested for a prior offense. Our treatment of them may actually make them more likely to reoffend.
What next steps do you envision should be taken because of your findings academically and/or practically?
The study needs to be replicated in other states and with even more diverse adolescent populations. This is something I am currently pursuing. In the interim, even counties and states who have no interest in serving as a research site can adopt Reading for Life and begin to experience some of the outstanding results we have seen in our own lab.
Alesha Seroczynski (@aleshasero) is the Director of College Operations for the Westville Education Initiative at Holy Cross College (Notre Dame, IN), a liberal arts degree program at Westville Correctional Facility (IN) that is sponsored by Holy Cross College, the University of Notre Dame, and Bard College in upstate New York. She is also a Faculty Affiliate with the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families at the University of Notre Dame. Alesha has published and presented at several international venues, including the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Psychiatry Research, Journal of Research in Character Education, the Association for Moral Education, the Association for General and Liberal Studies, and the Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues. Her graduate training in developmental and counseling psychology included clinical work with ADHD and aggressive adolescents; and long-standing literary, philosophical and theological interests led Alesha to pursue some post-graduate study of several great thinkers. Alesha integrated the ideas of ancient and contemporary scholars into Reading for Life, an innovative program for juvenile offenders that utilizes small group mentoring, Aristotelian virtue theory, and great stories to inspire at-risk youth to make better life choices. Alesha earned her B.A. in Psychology from the University of Texas at Dallas, her M.A. in Counseling Psychology (1994) and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology (1999) from the University of Notre Dame. Learn more about Reading for Life at www.readingforlife.us.