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An unusual sentence has been trialled on juvenile offenders in Virginia: reading.

In September 2016 offensive graffiti was sprayed on an old school house in Virginia – Ashburn Coloured School – which was used for teaching black students during the era of segregation.

The graffiti was racially charged, including images of swastikas.  However, it also included images of genitalia and dinosaurs, which is what originally lead the Prosecutor Alejandra Rueda to suspect the graffiti might be the work of children.

Her feeling was right: five teenagers aged 16 and 17 were arrested and pleaded guilty.

There was some outrage voiced in the community about the vandalism, which Alejandra Rueda stated that she felt was understandable, but she herself took a more sympathetic view.  Rueda says “some of the kids didn't even know what a swastika meant” and that she “saw a learning opportunity”, feeling that it would be worth trying rehabilitation instead of punishment in this case.

The prosecutor drew up a list of 35 books, ordering the offenders to choose 12 of them, reading one book a month for a year and completing a written assignment on each.

These books included Alice Walker's The Color Purple, My name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner – books Rueda felt would encourage cultural and racial awareness.

Two years later, the sentence appeared to have worked.  All five teenagers completed their reading, and writing assignments, none have reoffended, and all are still in education.  Rueda thinks it may be possible to use this type of sentence in more cases.

Law applicants might consider the efficacy of this sentence and other versions of rehabilitation in minimising re-offending.  English applicants might want to consider how this reflects on the role of literature in society, and Education applicants might consider the role of education in tackling prejudice.

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