It’s a modern cliché to say that reading books will make you a better person—a more empathetic person, a more intelligent person, even a happier person. Research does indeed suggest many benefits from cozying up with a good book. But does reading only change those seeking betterment or can it help the juvenile offender with no inclination toward self-driven soul searching?
A judge in Virginia recently threw the book at his defendants—a pile of books, in fact, at five teens found guilty of writing the phrases “brown power” and “white power” and painting swastikas on the exterior walls of the historic Ashburn Colored School. The teens were sentenced by Judge Avelina Jacob and ordered to read twelve books in a calendar year.
It would be easy to say that Judge Jacob wants this group of sixteen and seventeen-year-old defendants, comprised of both whites and minorities, to see how hard life can be when you face hatred and discrimination under slavery, Jim Crow, or Nazi Europe in the 1940s. The sentence, which appears to be a mandated book-a-month club, is a far greater educational wager if one looks more closely at the reported requirements. The students must read books from a court determined list, write a report about each book they read, take field trips with their parents to the Holocaust Museum and the American History Museum, listen to oral histories of those who survived Jim Crow. The judge also provided the option of watching movies about surviving the Holocaust.
These requirements amount to a demanding syllabus for the uneducated student of history and would rival many classroom curriculum for accelerated language arts classes. The list of 35 books represents what is often lacking in classrooms—a blending of powerful literature and America history that can challenge and train the soul. The sentence requires that the teenagers not only read the books but draft a response to the messages of books such as Exodus by Leon Uris, The Chosen by Chaim Potok, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Night by Elie Wiesel, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
The state’s attorney who crafted the punishment is, not surprisingly, the daughter of a librarian and grew up in Mexico. She seems unwilling to take the chance that there may (or may not) be a single book that can act as a silver bullet to change these teens, so she has prescribed twelve. The Commonwealth’s attorney Jim Plowman said, “We are seizing the opportunity to treat this as an education experience for these young men.”
One English teacher “balked at the idea of using literature as punishment,” the New York Times reported. But everyone else in the case seemed to recognize that these students have already made it too far without a proper education. The Loudon County curriculum for 11th grade public school students contains numerous overlaps with the court’s proscribed reading list, including The Crucible and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But this doesn’t mean all students are completing—or even attempting—to read these assignments. Now the court is demanding they do it. Punishment? Perhaps. A second chance at a principled education? Absolutely.
Judge Jacob is hardly the first court officer to require reading of defendants. In a Richmond, Va., robbery case in 2012, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ordered a defendant released for home monitoring to “read for at least one hour every day” and “write reports on those books for at least thirty minutes every day.” A Utah Judge, Thomas Willmore, has ordered defendants since 2009 to read Les Miserables and write him a report. “It isn’t meant as a form of punishment, but rather a tool to help people think through their lives,” Willmore said. “Part of the rehabilitation process is writing and working through their issues,” he said.
Judge Michael Corriero, who has assigned a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens to juvenile offenders, dubbed this approach bibliotherapy for defendants. The judge had a bookshelf with “time honored” classics from which defendants checked out and returned their assigned readings.
Education has long been viewed as essential to rehabilitation and programs have sprung up across the country to educate inmates after their sentencing, but Judge Jacob seems to be staking out an opportunity to assign (and enforce) a dense curriculum and demanding literature program for juvenile offenders who have been unable or unwilling to obtain that education before their arrest. Let’s hope they hit the books, especially the hard ones, and that the lessons they learn help keep them out of prison.