Juvenile justice requires a special sensitivity. This is widely recognized here in Virginia as well as the rest of the country. The fact that an entire system is dedicated to the special handling of juvenile offenses reflects the widely held view that young people who commit crimes often do so out of ignorance rather than forethought. The logic that follows is that education should be preferred over incarceration for most juveniles.
Adding to that argument, as we noted in our previous post, is the evidence that indicates that lack of education has a way of canting the sentencing decisions of some courts in an unfavorable way to student dropouts. Some would argue that apparent discrepancies in prison terms that result are downright unfair to undereducated defendants.
There is a particular story that recently made the news that prompts our observation on this point. Readers may be aware of the case of five boys in Ashburn who pleaded guilty to charges of destruction of property and unlawful entry.
The charges stemmed from events last October at the historic Ashburn Colored School. This is a site where black children of Loudoun County learned for some 60 years until the 1950s. This was their schoolhouse, established because the law didn’t allow them to attend schools with white children.
According to case details, the five youths, three of whom are from minority backgrounds, spray painted racist slogans and symbols on the school. Interestingly, the slogan “BROWN POWER” appeared near another declaring “WHITE POWER.”
Apparently based on that and the fact that the boys had never been in trouble with the law before, the prosecutor concluded this was a situation of naiveté rather than hate. As a result, in return for guilty pleas, her sentencing recommendation for the boys was that they get better educated about race- and religion-based discrimination.
To achieve the goal, the boys are required to read books selected from a prepared list featuring black, Jewish and Afghan authors. They also will visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, hear a recorded interview with a woman who attended the Ashburn school, and write reports about what they learn from the curriculum.
This seems to be a clear case where belief that young offenders are teachable trumped notions that they are incorrigible.