Seven women recently graduated from the Changing Lives Through Literacy Program, a community service alternative for Lycoming County offenders.
"If you look at studies, the correlation between lack of education, lack of employment and recidivism is huge," Judge Marc Lovecchio said.
"The reading gives you something to do instead of drink, smoke or whatever else," a soft-spoken 19-year-old graduate of the program said.
Lovecchio's wife Angela launched the program in the spring of 2012 after searching for ways to combine her passion for law with her English teaching background.
"I started Google searching and I came across this program created by Dr. Robert Waxler," attorney Angela Lovecchio said.
Waxler, of the University of Massachusetts, created the Changing Lives Through Literacy program to provide rehabilitation to offenders in lieu of incarceration or supervision.
"Here, we started with baby steps. Instead of making it in lieu of probation or incarceration, we'll see how it works in lieu of community service," Judge Lovecchio said.
Offenders enrolled in the program are mostly those whose criminal records contain retail theft or drug charges. However, the program also may be appropriate for violent offenders, Angela Lovecchio said.
"You're not a horrible person because you did something wrong. You just learn from it," said one program graduate, a pregnant young woman with long blonde hair.
The program requires a judge, a probation officer and a facilitator to administer. The most recent session was administered by Angela Lovecchio, Judge Lovecchio and Julie Quail, an adult probation officer who works with female offenders.
"I would like to see this program continue. It's just as effective as community service," Quail said.
The group met at the Pennsylvania College of Technology to read and discuss six books over a three month period. The group was very engaged, with some enrollees highlighting and annotating their books, Angela Lovecchio said.
"Going to Penn College was much better than having to come to the court house, knowing what you went through here," a middle-aged program graduate said.
Book titles included Articles of War by Nick Arvin, Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and The Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison, a college level book.
"You guys don't realize the level of books you read," Judge Lovecchio told the program graduates. "If you really wanted to advance your education, you could."
In addition to improving offenders' reading and comprehension skills, the Changing Lives Through Literacy program has produced some unanticipated benefits.
"I had to sit in front of five people for a job interview but I wasn't shy because of talking to the judges," said one young program graduate. "I got the job offer."
The program helps shift the perception of the court system from an enemy to an ally, graduates said.
"The judge comes in with flip-flops and takes his shoes off under the table. You see that everyone is human," one graduate said.
Dr. Carrie Richmond, a criminal justice professor at Lycoming College, currently is in the process of evaluating the program. Richmond surveyed the most recent round of program graduates to help analyze the program's efficacy.
"She's going to help us try to track the recidivism rate to get some grant money," Angela Lovecchio said.
Looking to the future, Angela Lovecchio hopes the program will expand to serve more groups.
"We're not here to punish them and send them away forever," Judge Lovecchio said. "They learn that there's hope and with some perseverance and utilizing available resources, they can succeed."