The class would meet every two weeks.

Convicts would discuss literature alongside the judge who had sentenced them and their probation officers.

Failures to show up to class or do the reading would count as parole violations.

This was not your average book club.

After half an hour of silent reading, the discussion began.

It was awkward at first.

Trying to steer the group, Waxler hit on a question about the characters. “Are these bad guys? Or could this have happened to anybody?”

This launched a discussion about moral ambiguity. These characters had acted badly, sure; But the story wasn’t about villains. It was about how mistakes build on themselves, and how quickly people can lose control.

The project discouraged students from talking about their own biographies—but the characters in each story gave them a new lens through which to see themselves.

Through stories, students could imagine alternate futures, and paths to get there. “It allows these guys, who are often stuck in the perpetual now, to break out of the present moment and reflect back on their past, and what they might be able to do to create a future for themselves.”

The course ran a second time.

Then a third.

By the end of the year, 45 percent of probationers in a comparison group had reoffended; five committed violent crimes. In that same time, less than 20 percent of the program’s students had reoffended, and only one committed a violent crime.

A more ambitious follow-up tracked about 600 students. Again, students were less likely to reoffend, and when they did, they committed less severe crimes.

This was the first program of its kind, and for many, it’s working. It costs about $500 per student, compared to $30,000 for a year of jail time if that student reoffends.