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