News out of Iran’s criminal justice system last week could not be more surprising. One Judge Qasem Naqizadeh in the city of Gonbad-e Kavus is adopting an alternative sentencing mechanism for juveniles that the rest of the world would do well to pay attention to.
Juvenile offenders with no previous records, having committed relatively minor crimes, are being sentenced to buy and read books. They are then required to summarize them and submit a “book report” to the judge, the books the children buy are then donated to a local prison. Putting aside the jokes that most of us would probably have made back in our school days, that writing a book report is “cruel and unusual punishment,” the judge’s actions serve as recognition of the systemic role prisons may actually play in increasing criminal activities and result in a social deficits.
The rationale guiding such decisions are not dissimilar to those regarding prison education and access to books more generally, namely that reading and education develop individuals’ critical thinking abilities. It also acknowledges the propensity of prisons to exacerbate existing mental health issues, and present very real physical dangers to juveniles. And as with adults, many of the issues that land juveniles in the criminal justice system are often related to issues of poverty and lack of opportunity—a lack of hope. Books and education offer hope for an alternate future, and also help provide young people with the tools for realizing that future.