Don’t Do The Crime If You Can’t… Read The Lines?

Judge in Virginia sentences teenagers to read twelve novels following racist graffiti.

In an unusual case in Virginia last month, five boys aged sixteen and seventeen were sentenced to a year of reading novels and watching films about racism- a response to their vandalism of Ashburn Coloured School in Virginia. The boys covered the building, formerly a school for the community’s African-American children, in swastikas, obscenities, and the phrase “white power”. The unusual sentence was the brain-child of county prosecutor, Alex Rueda. Inspired by her own experience of education through wide reading (her mother was a librarian), Rueda believes that once the boys understand the messages that their symbols and slogans send, they will not reoffend, and perhaps even educate others.

The boys must read and write reports on twelve books from a set list of 35 including Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Up to three books can be substituted with films such as Schindler’s List and Twelve Years a Slave. The boys must also visit the American History museum and the United States Holocaust museum.  

On the face of it, this type of sentence seems like a great strategy. Instead of simply being punished for petty criminal behaviour, the vandals were given a chance to see why their graffiti was so offensive and better understand the implications of their actions. Unlike the usual sentence of community service, this is an education rather than a punishment, which is arguably more beneficial in the long run. At the same time, however, it could send the message that racist vandalism is treated mildly, and the assumption that the crime was not racially motivated- that the boys were just being “dumb teenagers”- suggests that they are not being held responsible for their actions. Additionally, should this “punishment” even be necessary? By the age of sixteen, should the education system not have done a better job of helping young people to understand the context and seriousness of racial hatred and inequality? This is certainly a good start, but education on race issues should be standard practice, not punishment- now more than ever.  

[Bethany Garner]

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