A VCU class will give 10 offenders a second chance instead of jail time

Illustration by Erin Vest.
Illustration by Erin Vest.

Instead of serving jail time, 10 petty offenders will collaborate with VCU students in a new English 366 course.

The class, which is called “Writing Your Way Out: A Criminal Justice Diversion Program” includes discussion of literature, various human rights issues and diverse experiences, all amid an atmosphere of sharing and support.

The service-learning course has been taught at The Richmond City Justice Center since 2011, in a program founded by VCU english professor David Coogan.

With the support of VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences and the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, the program is a credit-bearing opportunity for students and a more liberating alternative for criminals who are motivated to turn their situations around.

Montserrat Fuentes, dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said she is proud of the partnership that promotes responsible citizenship behavior and rehabilitation.

“As a college, we are committed to make a difference on the lives of our community members while offering a transformative educational experience to our students,” Fuentes said.

Coogan said he hopes the program will allow students and participants to connect with one another and share their struggles to foster more mutual respect in the community.

“I hope that this program helps [the offenders] figure out a way to live a better life,” Coogan said. “Though some are incarcerated and some are free, we’re all struggling with something.”

The course is taught by Coogan with the help of Dean Turner and Kelvin Belton who both served time at the Richmond City Jail before joining the program at the justice center. They later co-authored the book “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail,” with Coogan.

John Venuti, VCU police chief, said the course will be beneficial to the community because it is better for some people to have second chances than to be punished.

“In the appropriate situations, this program allows select offenders to get that second chance,” Venuti said.

The course is only available to low-level offenders, meaning felons and those convicted of violent crimes are not eligible for the plea arrangement. A code of conduct is in place for participants, with referrals to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, and on-call VCU Police Department officer intervention or program dismissal as consequences.

The College of Humanities and Sciences is covering the expenses for the participants’ class materials with budget allocations. According to University Public Relations, the course will require no new funds or resources and will save taxpayer money by reducing court costs and eliminating the cost of incarceration.

“Collaboratively, everyone is thinking about who would be best positioned to take advantage of this opportunity, who really wants to change,” Coogan said.

Nia Tariq, Contributing Writer

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