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University hosts program that allows criminals to avoid jail time with a few essays

School, state government refuse to comment on stats

Some criminals in the Richmond, Virginia area are eligible for a writing class at Virginia Commonwealth University that seeks to deter crime and put low-level offenders on the right path. They write a few essays and avoid jail time.

But in response to repeated requests from The College Fix on whether the 7-year-old program has been successful in reducing recidivism, neither the university nor the state government offered any evidence to that effect.

“English 366: Writing and Social Change” is being offered this semester to 10 low-level offenders, who avoided jail time in exchange for completion of the course, according to the university.

The English department’s description of the class says it “opens an inquiry into the many reasons people turn to crime and the many challenges they face while incarcerated.”

The initiative, “Writing Your Way Out: A Criminal Justice Diversion Program,” is the result of a collaboration between the university and the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney. The course is taught by English Professor David Coogan.

Coogan has taught the course at the Richmond City jail since 2011, according to a university press release. Coogan founded “Open Minds,” a program in which “jail residents and VCU students come together to read and write about literature, share the stories of their lives, support one another, and contend with the diversity of experiences tied to race, class, generation, gender, sexual orientation, addiction and the criminal justice system.”

Coogan did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The College Fix seeking evidence or data that suggests the “Writing Your Way Out” program will deter criminals from future lawbreaking.

Nor did the state government. When reached for comment about the effectiveness of the program, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring expressed interest in discussion but never followed up with any evidence.

The diversion program accepts only low-level offenders whose reading and writing skills are already established. Individuals are not eligible if they have ever been convicted of any sex offense, burglary, or violent crime against a person.

Among the goals of the course is for participants to “write your life story honestly and courageously, delving into your past, the problems that you have experienced, the punishments or consequences you have known, and the possibilities you see in life.”

According to the VCU course website, English 366 is a “focused study of the literatures of underserved communities such as those of prisoners, recovering addicts, inner-city teens or immigrants” in which students will collaborate with “one such community on an original writing project.”

The participants in the diversion program were chosen through collaboration with the Commonwealth Attorney and local police department, according to the university. The participants were required to follow a code of conduct and the VCU police department was available for assistance if anything got out of hand.

A spokeswoman for Virginia Commonwealth University police said the department has not received any complaints regarding the course this semester.

MORE: Professor requires students write 8-page ‘commitment to social justice’

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About the Author
Aryssa Damron -- Yale University