Whenever prosecutors or judges come up with ideas for unique and creative sentences, the cases often get covered in the news. Sometimes, a creative sentence is imposed as a learning opportunity – especially in cases involving juvenile defendants. The theory here is that juvenile crime is often the product of naiveté and poor judgment rather than malice. If we accept this premise (and juvenile development research suggests we should), then we should be focusing on reform rather than punishment.
A seemingly good example comes from Virginia, where five teen boys were charged with destruction of property after defacing a historical landmark. The landmark was a historic black school, and the graffiti contained racist imagery (swastikas) and hate speech (such as “white power”).
On its face, this seemed like a hate crime. But it should be noted that three of the five defendants are minorities, and the phrase “brown power” was also spray painted on the building. Upon further investigation, the crime now seems motivated by the fact that the building is owned by a private school that one of the boys recently left on unfavorable terms.
Based on her understanding of the crime and of the defendants’ likely motives, the prosecutor recommended a sentence meant to impart education and empathy rather than punishment. She recommended that the defendants be required to:
- Read certain books by prominent African-American, Jewish and Afghan authors
- Research and write a paper on hate speech
- Visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Listen to a recorded interview with someone who had attended the school (as a student) that the boys defaced
If these requirements are met, the cases against the teens will be dismissed. The prosecutor who recommended the sentence said: “It really seemed to be a teachable moment. None of them seemed to appreciate — until all of this blew up in the newspapers — the seriousness of what they had done.”
To many in the criminal justice community, including defense attorneys, this case is an example of how more juvenile crime cases could and should be handled. Young people have a tremendous capacity for reform; an outcome which is rarely achieved through incarceration and a criminal record that could haunt them for years to come. Hopefully, this will serve as an example for other prosecutors and judges to follow.