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  • We review a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of Reading for Life, a mentoring and character development program for juvenile offenders.
  • Our review found this to be a well-conducted RCT, showing that the program reduced the rate of subsequent re-arrests. Specifically, over the study’s follow-up period of four to 46 months, 30 percent of the treatment group was re-arrested versus 38 percent of the control group. The program reduced felony arrests by a similar amount. These effects approached or met conventional levels of statistical significance.
  • The study’s main limitation is that it was conducted in a single town in Indiana. Although the findings are very promising, replication of these results in another RCT carried out in other sites is needed to have confidence that the program would produce similar impacts if implemented on a larger scale.

In the area of youth crime prevention, few programs that have been rigorously evaluated have been found to produce meaningful reductions in delinquency or crime. As we will describe in future Straight Talk reports, even programs that are widely cited as “evidence based” in this area are too often backed by weaker evidence than claimed—that is, there’s less there than meets the eye. This leaves policymakers in jurisdictions that are experiencing high levels of juvenile crime with few research-proven tools to lower the crime rate and improve public safety.

That’s why we were pleased to see the recent publication of a high-quality RCT of the Reading for Life juvenile justice diversion program, which found very promising effects on youth crime. Our full two-page review of the study is linked here; the following is a short overview:

This was a well-conducted RCT of the Reading for Life diversion program, a mentoring and character-development program for first- or second-time juvenile offenders with nonviolent records that seeks to build virtuous character through the study of moral themes in literature. The study, which had a sample of 408 youth in a medium-sized town in Indiana, found sizable effects on re-arrests during the study’s follow-up period, which ranged from four to 46 months after random assignment depending on when youth enrolled in the study. Specifically, 30 percent of youth in the Reading for Life group were re-arrested during the follow-up period versus 38 percent of youth in the control group, who were assigned to treatment-as-usual—that is, community service. For felony offenses, these figures were 15 percent versus 22 percent, respectively. (The effect on felony arrests was statistically significant at the 0.05 level, whereas the effect on total arrests was significant at the 0.07 level.)


Source: Alesha Seroczynski, William Evans, Amy Jobst, Luke Horvath, and Giuliana Carozza, “Reading for Life and Adolescent Re-Arrest: Evaluating a Unique Juvenile Diversion Program,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, vol. 35, 2016, pp. 662-682.

So do we recommend large-scale expansion of this program? Not yet. In cases like this where a high- quality RCT has found sizable impacts, it is not a given that the positive results would be reproduced if the program were implemented and rigorously tested in new sites. (A forthcoming Straight Talk report, in fact, will discuss an example of a highly-positive RCT finding that was not successfully reproduced.) So, instead, we suggest a modest expansion of the program to new sites, coupled with a second RCT in those sites to determine whether the promising impacts described above can be replicated. If the second RCT also produces positive results, this program would then qualify as one of the very few with strong, replicated evidence of important impacts. In other words, Reading for Life would be ready for prime time: Policymakers could be confident that if they were to implement it on a large scale—in adherence, of course, to the program’s key elements—their efforts would yield real progress in reducing juvenile crime.

Response provided by the lead author

We invited the lead study author, Alesha Seroczynski, to provide written comments on our review. She said that she appreciated the opportunity but did not wish to add anything.