NOVEL A TOME-MENT: Aurora to be first in state to launch book-club reading program for criminal offenders

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AURORA | Committing a crime in Aurora could soon land the perpetrator in a book club.

The city is launching a pilot program this fall that diverts some municipal-level offenders to a 12-week program where they read a list of books, one every two weeks or so. 

Aurora Judge Shawn Day said in a city meeting this week that the program can be flexible, as the participants will be “hand-picked” for the program. The only offenders not eligible for the program would be those convicted of murder and sex crimes. 

The program won’t be used as a replacement for court-ordered treatment, such as counseling or anger management, according to city officials.

“It doesn’t take the place of anything mandated by law,” Day said. “It can supplement it. It can be a direct sentence as well. It seems to be a worthwhile program and at least worth a shot.”

Aurora City Council member Allison Hiltz is helping implement the program, called Changing Lives Through Literature. Hiltz said she first remembers reading about the program more than a decade ago in a newspaper at her grandmother’s kitchen table. 

Ever since she’s wanted to help create a program, she said. Aurora will be the first place in Colorado to potentially adopt the program, which has been utilized across the country, including Florida, Texas, California, Connecticut and other states.

While a reading program for prison inmates in Colorado — called Words Beyond Bars — exists, the Aurora program would be the first in Colorado for Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative-sentencing program.

Books other Changing Lives Through Literature programs have used include titles and authors found in most high school literature classes: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, dystopian tales from George Orwell, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and more.

More than 3,500 people have gone through the program, which started a the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 1992 as the state was looking for alternative sentencing options.

A study following the first 32 participants of the program found the rate of recidivism among those in the program was significantly lower: about 18 percent, compared with 45 percent among 40 others on probation.

Day said he felt the pilot program was worth a shot after speaking with one of the founding members of the program in Massachusetts. 

“(This program) draws people back in who may have fallen out of the connection of either getting a GED or pursuing a degree,” Day said. “Just being on campus and talking about literature can draw people back in.”

The program is set to begin in early October and take place on the Community College of Aurora campus. Other details, like a reading list and facilitator, are still being finalized. 

Hiltz’s said she hopes to have some local book stores provide gift cards for the participants so that they can write in the books and keep them. No city funds are being diverted to the pilot program.