Reading for Life: early intervention to keep young people from crime

Many of today's hardened criminals were yesterday's juvenile offenders.

However, early intervention has been effective in keeping young people from going down a path of crime, as they get older.

A unique local program has been very successful in getting troubled kids on the straight and narrow.

For more than a decade, a Granger woman has been helping first-time juvenile offenders from becoming repeat offenders, or worse, adult felons.

Her idea is quite "novel".

A library does not strike most people as a big crime-fighting tool.

Do not tell that to Doctor Alesha Seroczynski, especially when it comes to the small library at St. Joe County's Juvenile Justice Center.

She says, “I think the stories of other people, even if they're fictional characters can inspire young people to make better life choices.”

Seroczynski is the brainchild behind Reading for Life, a joint effort between the JJC and Notre Dame's Center for Children and Families.

First time, non-violent juvenile offenders, charged with crimes like shoplifting and vandalism, can enter a book-based pre-trial diversion program.

If they successfully complete it, the charges will be dropped and their record expunged.

More importantly, says Seroczynski, the juveniles are likely to stay out of serious trouble the rest of their lives.

She says, “Only three percent of our Reading for Life graduates have ever been convicted of another felony.”

Over the years, Seroczynski has done a lot of reading on juvenile crime and realized "reading" may hold the key to nipping it in the bud.

It is a novel idea in the literal sense.

“We let the kids choose the books to read together as a group, and it's very small groups; just five students with two mentors. We start talking about how the characters in the stories make life choices and which may or may not be virtuous and then they begin to think and journal about how they might make life choices that are more virtuous,” says Seroczynski.

The teens meet for one hour, twice a week for ten weeks, and in the 11th week, they make a presentation to their parents about what books they have read and what they've learned.

Seroczynski adds, “we also do a thematic community service project, which means we try to find something in the story that fits with something that's happening in the community. So if we read something about, say, the holocaust, we might go the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph valley.”

About 150 teens enter Reading for Life every year, immersing themselves in fiction.

Seroczynski says, when they emerge, most are ready to write a new chapter in their own lives.

She says, “We hear great things from students and their parents, like their graduation from high school with a core forty. We have a graduate right now who is a 21st century scholar and just started college over at IUSB. They do wonderful things, like going to the library again and they have better conversations with their parents and their teachers. Some go from making straight F's to A's and B's.”

It costs $250 a day to incarcerate a juvenile offender in Indiana.

Reading for Life has made it easier to balance the books.

“We've saved the taxpayers over a half million dollars,” Seroczynski says.

So when it comes to troubled teens, it may not always best to read them the riot act but, rather, read between the lines.

Seroczynski says, “I think it works because we are story driven people, so we think in story and remember in story. And I think it's the stories of others that inspire us. It's not a list of rules and mandates that make us want to be better people. It's that we hear a great story and, all of a sudden, we begin to think we could be that person, we could be great, too.”

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