Reading for Life


  • St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center, Indiana

Focus Area

  • Criminal Justice

“This program endeavors to be a catalyst for transformative and enduring virtuous life changes by engaging, educating, and empowering its participants.”

Bill Evans, “Reading for Life and Adolescent Re-Arrest: Evaluating a Unique Juvenile Diversion Program”

The Issue

Today, 15 million children live in poverty in the U.S. That’s 21% of American kids, some of whom will turn to drugs, alcohol, and gang membership for a sense of escape and belonging. And this often turns to crime. 

In fact, a startling amount of crimes in the States involve juveniles. Of those arrested for property crimes, 25% are under the age of 18. Violent crimes? Nearly 20% are committed by juveniles. In response, the U.S. criminal justice system perpetuates a culture of juvenile incarceration. In 2013, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the U.S. incarcerates 250 out of every 100,000 youth. Of all industrialized nations, that makes America the leading juvenile incarcerator. And in the Land of Opportunity, incarceration is no place for kids.

While most incarcerated youth are held in juvenile justice centers, some are held in adult correctional facilities. In 2010, the Annual Survey of Jails found that 7,560 youth under the age of 18 were held in adult jails. 2,295 more were held in adult prisons. Adult jails and prisons leave youth vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and violence. And research finds that incarcerating youth is costly and ineffective. 

Nagin and Paternoster (2000) find that juvenile crime is a strong predictor of adult crime. So most incarcerated youth will commit additional crimes in their lifetimes. And many will become “frequent users”—adults who cycle repeatedly through emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and jails. This isn’t just costly. It’s tragic.

Youth are more likely to be incarcerated for misdemeanors than violent crimes, with potentially far-reaching consequences. In 2004, the Juvenile Justice Education Enhancement program found that incarcerated youth are years behind their appropriate grade level. And frequent childhood school absences are often linked to substance use and dependency, a reliance on public benefits, and other adverse life events like teen pregnancy and divorce. 

Research by Kirk and Sampson (2013) finds that juveniles involved in the criminal justice system are less likely to graduate from high school and college, and Kling (2006) finds that they will have worse employment and earnings outcomes than their peers. If they start a family, this only exposes their kids to the perpetual cycle of crime and poverty.

Cohen and Piquero (2009) estimate that the present value of helping a 14-year-old avoid a life of crime can range from $2.6 to 5.3 million. Still, little research exists on how best to do this. Across the nation, juvenile justice centers offer a wide range of diversion programs, most of which incorporate punitive and community service elements. Some occur in groups, some involve families, some are purely individual. But we know too little about which models are actually effective in reducing juvenile crime. And we need to know what works. The lives of our kids—the futures of our communities—depend on it. 

The Intervention

Reading for Life is a diversion program for first-time, non-violent juvenile offenders. Over 12 weeks, participants meet in small, mentor-led reading groups that focus specifically on virtue, morality, and character development. 

Over the first 10 weeks, participants are invited to explore the seven classical virtues of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas’ virtue theory (justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, fidelity, hope, and charity) through reading, journaling, and discussion. Then, within their groups, participants design and implement a community service project that relates to their study of virtue and moral development. After implementing their service project, participants organize a presentation for their parents and Reading for Life staff members that summarizes how the program has inspired their character and personal growth. 

Over the course of the program, participants meet in small groups for one hour, twice a week. The groups contain a maximum of five participants, all with similar reading abilities. Group discussions are led by volunteer mentors who are trained in virtue ethics, adolescent development, counseling, and reading comprehension. 

Research Question

Does participating in a mentor-led reading program focused on virtue ethics and character development reduce the recidivism rate of first-time, non-violent juvenile offenders?

Intended Outcomes

  • Youth who participate in the Reading for Life program will be less likely to recidivate than those who participate in other diversion programs.
  • Participants will also be more likely to complete their high school education and enroll in college.

Research Study Design

The Reading for Life study is a randomized controlled trial. Because there are a limited number of volunteer mentors, a lottery was used to determine who received the chance to participate in the program. 

Eligible juvenile offenders who were referred to a diversion program by their probation officers were entered into the lottery. Depending on the results of a simple reading assessment, those selected by the lottery were placed into a Reading for Life group with peers of similar reading abilities. These individuals became part of the treatment group. Those who were not selected by the lottery were placed into an alternate community-service diversion program. They became members of the control group. At the conclusion of the study, LEO researchers compared the educational outcomes and recidivism rates of participants across the treatment and control groups.

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