Juvenile crime presents a challenge for judicial systems the world over. Are severe punishments for delinquent behaviour the answer, or should lawmakers and judges focus on more progressive policies to help young people turn their lives around?

Alejandra Rueda, a prosecutor and deputy commonwealth attorney in Loudoun County, Virginia, clearly believes in the latter.

Two years ago, Rueda was faced with the case of five boys aged 16 and 17 who admitted spraying racist graffiti - including swastikas - on a historic 19th-century schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse had special significance because it was the former Ashburn Colored School, which was attended by black children during segregation in Northern Virginia. The local community was outraged by the attack but Rueda wanted to know more about why the teenagers had done it.

 The teenagers vandalised the historic Ashburn School.
The teenagers vandalised the historic Ashburn School.
Image: Loudoun Now

None had been in trouble before and she realised they did not fully appreciate the significance of the symbols and language they had used.

Unusual sentence

So she persuaded judge Avelina Jacob to accept her plan based on a list of 35 books, including The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Each young offender was ordered to choose 12 from the list and write a monthly essay about each of their chosen texts.

Some writers were not convinced by the sentence. Speaking to the The New York Times, Marilyn Nelson, whose poem about the murder of a black teenager, A Wreath for Emmett Till, was not included, asked: “Will kids punished by being made to read poetry ever read poetry again?”

The boys also had to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of American History's exhibition about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. They then completed a final essay about what they had learned.

A happy ending

The result? Not only have none of the boys re-offended but the success of the pioneering reading sentence has led to other offenders being treated in the same way and prompted a review of the juvenile justice system in Loudoun County.

Image: Child Trends

Rueda says the teenagers’ essays proved how little they had understood the significance of what they had done. Although some in the local community protested at what they saw as a lenient sentence, and said it was unlikely it would have been handed to African-American children, Rueda points out that three of them were from ethnic minorities.

One of the youngsters agreed to allow part of their final essay to be published. In it, he said: “I feel especially awful after writing this paper about how I made anybody feel bad. Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter their race or religion or sexual orientation. I will do my best to see to it that I am never this ignorant again.”

Rueda says she was inspired by her librarian mother who gave her Leon Uris’s books Mila 18 and Exodus to teach her about the Holocaust when she was taking part in the youth scheme Model United Nations while growing up in Mexico.

"There's so many things that I've learned about war and about discrimination from books,” she told CNN. She said the boys “needed to open their eyes to the awful things people have done in the name of gender, race and religion. Books are the best way to combat that.”

The reading list in full

1. The Color Purple – Alice Walker

2. Native Son – Richard Wright

3. Exodus – Leon Uris

4. Mila 18 – Leon Uris

5. Trinity – Leon Uris

6. My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok

7. The Chosen – Chaim Potok

8. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

9. Night – Elie Wiesel

10. The Crucible – Arthur Miller

11. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

12. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

13. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

14. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

15. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

16. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

17. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

18. Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks

19. Tortilla Curtain – TC Boyle

20. The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

21. A Hope in the Unseen – Ron Suskind

22. Down These Mean Streets – Piri Thomas

23. Black Boy – Richard Wright

24. The Beautiful Struggle – Ta-Nehisi Coates

25. The Banality of Evil – Hannah Arendt

26. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

27. Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi

28. The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang

29. Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

30. The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson

31. The Help – Kathryn Stockett

32. Cry the Beloved Country – Alan Paton

33. Too Late the Phalarope – Alan Paton

34. A Dry White Season – Andre Brink

35. Ghost Soldiers – Hampton Sides