Fiction reduces reoffending criminal convictions

Josh Pitzalis
2 min readMay 3, 2022

The class would meet every two weeks.

Convicts would discuss literature alongside the judge who had sentenced them.

Failures to show up to class or do the reading would count as parole violations.

This was not your average book club.

After half an hour of silent reading, the discussion began.

It was awkward at first.

Trying to steer the group, Waxler hit on a question about the characters. “Are these bad guys? Or could this have happened to anybody?”

This launched a discussion about moral ambiguity. These characters had acted badly, sure; But the story wasn’t about villains. It was about how mistakes build on themselves, and how quickly people can lose control.

The project discouraged students from talking about their own biographies — but the characters in each story gave them a new lens through which to see themselves.

Through stories, students could imagine alternate futures, and paths to get there. “It allows these guys, who are often stuck in the perpetual now, to break out of the present moment and reflect back on their past, and what they might be able to do to create a future for themselves.”

The course ran a second time.

Then a third.

By the end of the year, 45 percent of probationers in a comparison group had reoffended; five committed violent crimes. In that same time, less than 20 percent of the program’s students had reoffended, and only one committed a violent crime.

A more ambitious follow-up tracked about 600 students. Again, students were less likely to re-offend, and when they did, they committed less severe crimes.

This was the first program of its kind, and for many, it’s working. It costs about $500 per student, compared to $30,000 for a year of jail time if that student reoffends.

The program in this story is called ‘Changing Lives Through Literature’. Here’s the Wikipedia page.

The program was conceived in 1990 over a tennis match between two angry Bobs. Bob Waxler, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Bob Kane, a judge at New Bedford, Massachusetts’s District Court.

Kane would select convicts and shorten their jail sentences, but only if they agreed to join a reading group led by Waxler.

I found the story in a book called

For the primary research around the idea that reading literature can reduce criminal offenses, there are many anecdotal reports of the benefits of bibliotherapy for prison populations. However, outside of the evaluation of Changing Lives Through Literature itself, there are almost no experimental tests of the benefit of reading literature on the outcome of criminal recidivism.

The author put together a helpful reference of all the primary sources on a downloadable at the bottom of this page