Children facing sentencing by Circuit Judge will sometimes leave court with a book and a chance for leniency.
When children are dismissed from Circuit Judge Suzanne Bass’s courtroom, they leave with adjudication and often, with a book in their hands.
About a year ago, Bass began adding an assignment to read a book and deliver an oral or written report to some children she sentenced to community service and probation.
Completing the assignment takes five hours off the 15- to 25-hour community service obligation.
She was inspired to begin the practice by a 12-year-old girl appearing in her court. It was at the time when Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist during the Civil War, was being considered to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
“I asked her if she knew who Harriet Tubman was, and she didn’t, so I asked her to read a book about Tubman and tell me about her at the next hearing,” Bass said.
The assignment led to a transformation.
“When she came back to court, she was dressed up and confident and she knew everything about Harriet Tubman, She was so proud of herself,” she added.
After that success, Bass put a bookshelf in a small conference room adjacent to her court and stocked it with books donated by Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library.
Bass went to the Friends’ warehouse at the University Park Branch Library in Arlington and picked out books for children and young adults. In addition to classics of literature, the selection includes inspirational and motivational topics, as well as biographies and books about good role models for children.
A few months after the courtroom library was established, Bass gained another book donation partner, juvenile justice reform advocate Renata Hannans, who volunteers at the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
Hannans is the author of “P.S. Never Give Up Hope,” a collection of stories about young people who are serving time in prison.
When Hannans looked at the books in Bass’ library, she decided there needed to be an addition.
Hannan started a campaign at GoFundMe.com to provide a budget for books by and about prominent African-Americans, such as Civil War-era social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass and A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights and labor reform leader who lived in Jacksonville.
Bass sees handing down reading assignments as an integral part of the mission of the court — helping children who break the law to avoid more serious crimes.
“I don’t always hit a home run, but if I can introduce one child to reading, or if I can introduce one child to a leader, the world is a better place. I hope maybe I can plant a seed,” she said.