On trial? Forget jail, learn English!

A judge known for creative sentencing has ordered three Spanish-speaking men to learn English or go to jail.
The men, who faced prison for criminal conspiracy to commit robbery, can remain on parole if they learn to read and write English, earn their GEDs and get full-time jobs, Luzerne County Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. said.

This story is so weird and the fact that it plays up how kind and progressive this judge is creeps me out. Ordering men to learn English because you are frustrated that they can’t speak English and need translation is a type of racism. On the other hand, if this distracted the courts from incarcerating more men of color, that is cool.
But ordering people to learn English? If the state is forcing you to adopt culture and language in the context of incarceration, that is not in the best interest of the accused. It is part of the process of colonizing the underclass and forcing them to do things you think are *good* for them, while ignoring what is actually harming their communities.
The best part? If they don’t learn English and pass a test they go to jail for 2 years. That is A LOT of pressure.

Join the Conversation

  • Alice

    But even assuming that an assimilationist(?) harbors feelings of cultural superiority, what does that have to do with race, if they do not then take the extra, obviously racist step of asserting that culture is necessarily connected with race?

  • ShelbyWoo

    I have several problems with this ruling (most of which have been brought up by others already). It is difficult to learn a language in one year (even if you are immersed in it), not to mention the cost involved in taking ESL and GED classes.
    Also, we have no way of knowing for sure if the judge was well-meaning or not, but it seems, from this comment: “Do you think we are going to supply you with a translator all of your life?” the judge asked them, that he was not well-intentioned and was indeed looking to punish them for speaking something other than the judge’s native tongue.
    Last, as has been established, there is no national language in this country and until English is required of the natural-born citizens in the U.S., it ridiculous to assume that a judge or anyone else has the right to order/force/pressure others to learn it.

  • ShelbyWoo

    As a parallel, you don’t have to take traffic school to drive proficiently, but a court can order you to go to traffic school as a condition of you driving. A court can put conditions on you retaining a privilege when you’ve violated the law.
    In this country, you are required to past a test and receive a license to operate a vehicle, with special testing/licensing required for certain vehicles. There are no such requirements/testing/licensing for speaking English.
    Driving is a privilege; communication, verbal or otherwise, is a human right. Therefore, driving and speaking English cannot be equated or paralleled.

  • http://www.feminocracy.wordpress.com outcrazyophelia

    It’s generally implicit, people conflate culture with race often–that isn’t to deny that there aren’t cultures associated with races or ethnicities but you get the idea. Culture has a racial/ethnic component in the U.S or at least that’s the way most think about it. They then tend to judge things as good or bad depending on how closely they cleave to “traditional” American culture.
    As many times as I’ve asked what is American culture, I rarely get a satisfactory answer–but nonetheless, they’ll say that this unknown has to be protected . I’m mincing around because this conversation requires a dive into racial construction theory that I can’t do justice to at the moment and I didn’t want to make any knee jerk responses–sorry if I’m being vague.

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=7951639350 lizadilly

    I would like it if more judges used a rehabilitational approach to parole arrangments and sentencing, just not on a racial basis. If you break the law, there are going to be consequences, but having options is rare.

  • Kelley

    First, I just wanted to thank outcrazyophelia–I agree with all of your very rational and well-worded responses.
    I also wanted to respond to some of adminassistant’s comments. Although it may seem ridiculous to some people, I think it’s a great thing that Latino students be allowed to take Spanish as their foreign language credit. I also work with a lot of Latino youth, most of whom attend a bilingual school (one of the few) and yet they are still losing their native language, despite it being spoken in the home too. Even in schools where the material is taught in Spanish and English, they never read or write Spanish. As a result, we have a lot of fluently bilingual kids who don’t know how to read or write in their native language.
    And while learning English is certainly beneficial, I wish it were also considered important for students to develop skills in their native language as well (as I said before I wish it were considered important for EVERYONE to develop themselves in more than one language since it is useful for everyone, not just immigrants to know more than one language)

  • adminassistant

    Kelley: “I wish it were considered important for EVERYONE to develop themselves in more than one language since it is useful for everyone…”
    In almost every state, high schoolers and even elementary students are required to take some type of language for credit towards graduation. Content standards for these foreign language studies provide for an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied. While I’m all for preservation of culture through language and vice versa, the primary intent of taking a foreign language in high school is to learn a FOREIGN language along with it’s cultures and customs and to provide for an appreciation of something they are not usually exposed to. My concern is that students already proficient in the language aren’t being challenged and then the content standards and educational standards aren’t being met.

  • crshark

    I’m latino, a civil rights lawyer, and have done a lot of work with immigrant rights, and I think the sentence is mostly a good deal for the defendants. I don’t think the original article gives enough information so that anyone can fairly describe the judge’s motives as racist. The article doesn’t give any context for his asking the defendants whether they expect to be provided translators all their lives. I disagree with Samhita’s interpretation that the judge ordered the defendants to learn English because he was frustrated that they needed translators. Court translators translate very quickly and unobtrusively and generally don’t delay court proceedings at all, especially if defendants have English-speaking attorneys, as the defendants did in this case. But I am curious why the judge ordered the defendants to both earn a GED and English. I thought earning a GED required a demonstrated competence in a certain level of English. What other English test did the judge order the defendants to pass?

  • crshark

    outcrazyophelia: “…As many times as I’ve asked what is American culture, I rarely get a satisfactory answer…”
    Why, it’s shopping malls, theme parks, gated communities, fast food, business parks, millions of miles of highways, neighborhoods with no sidewalks, Up With People! concerts, Wal-Mart, a slice of Kraft Processed Cheese Food on white bread with mayo, and SUV’s that go only from garage to garage. Did I leave anything out?

  • Meg77

    I think it needs to be pointed out that this sentence IS a punishment, one in lieu of a jail sentence for a serious crime. All discussion about whether or not the judge’s decision was based out of concerned care, desire to decrease the jail population, charity, or anything else is not really pertinant because it doesn’t HAVE to be. Judges make decisions out of horror, outrage, and spite all the time, and that’s generally OK (not to mention unavoidable) as long as they do it consistently.
    A RACIST ruling would be this judge sentencing them to an inordinately long jail term, refusing to admit evidence in their favor, or otherwise treating these men differently than he would a white, black, jewish, or female defendent.
    This judge (and others like him) issues these “creative” sentences all the time, to people of all ages and races. It’s highly controversial, but this is actually one of the more reasonable sentences I’ve heard about in that vein.

  • LittlePunk

    I dislike creative sentencing because it is too arbitrary, and gives too much power to the judge. And in this case, I can’t help but feel that xenophobia is involved, no matter how constructive the sentence may be.

  • Mina

    “Speaking English sure isn’t going to hurt them, and I wish all judges handed down similarly constructive rulings.”
    Good point – it’s not as if he’s ordering them to stop using other languages while they’re at it.
    OTOH, if two people commit the same offense, get convicted of the same crime, are both ordered to learn English, and one sucks more (as I do) at learning second languages than the other…then isn’t that one being punished more for that weakness in language learning? Could this kind of sentence be discrimination against convicts whose skills lean more in the math and science directions?
    “I disagree with Samhita equating the act of learning a language to adopting a culture, or even adopting that language. They’re not being forced to in any way discard their previous language or cultural heritage. They’re not being coerced into believing A instead of B; they are being forced to supplement A with B. It’s not as though they’re being forced to swear off Spanish or take a loyalty oath or anything; languages are not conflicting ideologies.”
    Meanwhile, you know how a whole bunch of conservatives out there complain about second-language requirements in some schools? How is “they shouldn’t have to learn any more languages or dialects, their native dialect is good enough!!!” any less conservative when their native dialect isn’t “standard English” than when it is?
    “What bothered me while teaching, was that Hispanic kids got to take Spanish as their foreign language credits. Riddle me that one.”
    Is it just as bothersome when the parent-taught subject in question is mathematics instead of a language? For example, one of my college classmates was taught geometry well at home by her parents. Her high school still let her take geometry class and score high marks on exams designed to measure how much of the subject students knew (not measure how they learned it). ;)
    “Even in schools where the material is taught in Spanish and English, they never read or write Spanish. As a result, we have a lot of fluently bilingual kids who don’t know how to read or write in their native language.”
    I’ve heard of some schools addressing these students by offering “Heritage Spanish” classes. These aren’t Spanish-as-a-foreign-language classes but a Spanish equivalent of the English classes for English native speakers (literary analysis, essay composition, all that fun stuff). :)

  • Crystal

    When I first heard about this, I was shocked, too. I thought, how can they force these men to learn English against their will? But I quickly realized that what was being said was entirely sensationalized. Further in the article, we learn that the reason they are being forced to learn English is not as some form of cruel and unusual punishment, or as an attempt to remove a part of their culture, but as an effort to help them get their GED and get a full time job. While I don’t agree that these men should shun their language, I think that providing the resources to better their lives is an incredible alternative to jail-time. Like you said, a huge number of people in jail are men and women of color (and I actually just read an article by Andrea Smith about how harmful prison is). Language can often serve as a barrier for why people aren’t able to better themselves (though of course there are a million other factors that contribute). So, the fact that someone is willing to take the first step in at least providing resources for these men seems much more productive than just tossing them in jail, which won’t help at all.

  • Tofurific

    I too live in Arizona and am a (future) educator. But I have to point out that not all Hispanic students know Spanish, or speak it at home, so you shouldn’t make assumptions about Latino/a students in Spanish classes. Moreover, they usually have Spanish for Spanish speakers at high schools in my area (these classes are not the same as the Spanish classes for non-speakers). As I know from my boyfriend’s situation, just because you speak Spanish at home doesn’t mean you have good reading and writing skills in that language. That’s why all of us who grew up speaking English take so many years of English classes.
    As I understand it, the whole goal is so that you come out of high school with some semblance of knowing a second language/culture. If you’re taking both Spanish and English classes and improving your skills in both, it doesn’t really matter to me which language(s) you grew up learning, I think you’re fulfilling the goal. Now, you could argue that they aren’t getting enough cultural enrichment because they aren’t challenged to learn about a culture that’s foreign to them, but the system wasn’t set up to accommodate bilingual students, it was set up for monolingual English students.
    Also, I think GED rulings could be a great thing and maybe they should be put in place more often for non-violent offenders. Of course, there also needs to be a fair timeline and economic support in place to help people get their GED. The truth is, education is one of the biggest deterrents to crime and forcing people who may be in last chance situations to improve their education is a great idea (I’m not talking specifically about this story, since I don’t know much about it). I should look it up, but I’m pretty sure that a really high number of inmates never finished high school.

  • Mina

    “That’s why all of us who grew up speaking English take so many years of English classes.”
    A crucial point.
    “Now, you could argue that they aren’t getting enough cultural enrichment because they aren’t challenged to learn about a culture that’s foreign to them”
    Hey, what about cultures that are divided by a common language?
    Both English literature and Spanish literature have authors from all over the world! An English Lit teacher could challege Anglo-American students to learn something about an Indian culture, a South African culture, etc. A Heritage Spanish teacher could challenge Mexican-American students to learn something about a Guatemalan culture, a Peruvian culture, etc.

  • Tofurific

    That’s true, I guess I didn’t think about it that way since I was thinking about it through the lens of my own second language class experience, where we didn’t get a whole lot of exposure to literature due to our lack of sufficient vocabulary.
    But you know, the more I think about it, the more I remember that in my own Spanish classes in high school, it wasn’t like we just learned about Spanish-speaking culture in Mexico (although that was a big part of it). We were exposed to the culture of many South American Spanish-speaking countries and we learned a little bit about Spain, too.
    And as for proficient speakers not meeting the standards, where I’m from, most of the students proficient in a second language have to take the AP class or some kind of test and then they’re done with the requirement (if their language falls into one of the narrowly “approved” popular courses offered at their school, that is). They’ve already met/surpassed the standard everyone else is held to. It would be just the same as a student who came into high school with a high proficiency in math, if they are ready for Calc II and take it as a freshman…there’s really nowhere else for them to go besides enrolling in a community college course. I agree that schools should provide resources to continue challenging students who come in with high proficiencies in various subject areas. The problem isn’t that these students aren’t being held to the same standards (because they are), it’s just that most schools have difficulty catering to individual needs under these circumstances. Whose fault that is, is anyone’s argument.

  • Peepers

    The judge’s intentions were probably benevolent. Keeping people out of the prison system, whenever possible, probably benefits people and society.
    Nonetheless, the sentence and the judge’s comment about translators made my skin crawl. Without knowing more, it is difficult to tell, but there seem to be a few faulty premises in play.
    1. The men needed translators because they were not fluent in English: Being able to converse well in a language is very different from being able to participate fully in one’s criminal defense in that language.
    2. The men must have had no good reason for not being fluent in English; probably they just needed this kind of motivation to get their lives on course: Need I point out how this relies on stereotypes of Hispanic/Latino men as lazy or unmotivated? (Earlier commentators have pointed out that the mandate without the support to make it happen is futile victim-blaming.)
    3. Anything that benefits an individual member of a racial/ethnic minority is not a racist act: Definitely the sentence would be preferable to jail time for the men who were sentenced. Probably the GED and English skills will be handy. This does not mean there was no bias in the sentencing.

  • http://profoundsarcasm.blogspot.com Liza

    Well, it does have vaguely racist connotations, but I am in favor of teaching incarcerated criminals how to change their lives and actions so that they can be functioning members of society when they get out and don’t repeat the same behaviors. I’m just not sure this is going about it the best way.
    I mean, learning English and getting GEDs would help these men in the long run. But I’m not sure putting it in the context of punishment (especially with an ultimatum) if helpful.
    It also has little bearing on the mentality behind their crimes. They can just as easily commit robbery in English as Spanish. And there are plenty of educated people who commit crimes, so ordering their GED won’t immediately help either.
    That’s not to say jail would help. It would probably make it worse.

  • Mina

    “You’re right, English isn’t our official language. Don’t know what I was thinking. I guess you could say it is our ‘unofficially-official’ language, but that’s not the same.”
    It’s not our official language and it is our lingua franca. Not everywhere has an official language. Is there any human society which doesn’t have at least one lingua franca?
    Speaking of lingua francas, what about the anti-rape lesson “no means no”? When someone doesn’t already know his or her local lingua franca’s word for “no” (obviously not the case when the two languages in question are English and Spanish, but a possibility in some other language combinations), should we still want him or her to learn it?

  • The Crab

    I guess I am the only one who views the convicted robbers as – robbers. Not jaywalkers, not pot-smokers, not a couple of fellows working off the books without papers. This is a trio of men who conspired to steal by VIOLENCE, which is what robbery is (often confused with burglary, which is not violent.)
    I don’t give a damn about the “cultural colonization.” The “interest of the accused” does not matter.
    Three German-Americans like me get arrested in Mexico or Poland or Bangladesh for conspiracy to rob, I hope that they would be so lucky as to get parole conditioned on learning their host country’s dominant language of lawful trade. Please, make a violent robber like me learn Tibetan and let me help herd the yaks, rather than have me sit ass-duty in a Himalayan jail.

  • KD

    I am pretty surprised that people are saying the judge’s sentence is “blaming the victim”. Hello! The victims are the people these guys were all set to ROB. I think we are losing perspective here.
    I am just as appalled by our failure of a penal system as anyone, but I can’t see this sentence as anything but constructive. How is this not better than throwing them in jail?? You might say “how will these people find the time and money to go to school? what if they are poor and have to support their families?” Well, do you think they’d be very good as supporting their families from a jail cell?
    I am also a huge proponent of multilingualism. I have worked in non English speaking countries in community development and supporting immigrants. You know what? It sucks not knowing the language of the place you live, official or not! If you yourself have never been an immigrant, never been the one who doesn’t speak the language of business where you are, then perhaps you don’t know how severely limiting it is. Most immigrants, no matter where they are from or where they are now, are trying to work hard to make the best life they can for themselves. These guys apparently made some mistakes along the way. But this sentence can only change their lives for the better.
    I am the last person who would support an English only policy in the US. In fact, I would love it if all Americans became bi or trilingual. And if someone was suggesting we pass laws to force immigrants to learn English, I would be the first to protest. But this is what happens when you break the law and end up in the hands of a judge. You are no longer free to make your own decisions because you messed it up when you had that freedom. But whatever this judge’s motivations, years down the line these guys will be far better off than had he just locked them up.

  • Mina

    “You know what? It sucks not knowing the language of the place you live, official or not! If you yourself have never been an immigrant, never been the one who doesn’t speak the language of business where you are, then perhaps you don’t know how severely limiting it is.”
    I haven’t been in any of those situations, but I can imagine how limiting it is.

  • jasonfifi

    these gentlemen were convicted for “criminal conspiracy to commit robbery.” this is not being “forced” to learn english. they are being given a very easy out, because the judge felt that they were not deserving of jail time. learning english is very easy for native spanish speakers; as easy as it is for native english speakers to learn spanish. passing the GED is set at a 9th grade level, and if the test was in spanish, i’m sure all of them could pass it. once they learn english, they’ll pass the GED, provide proof of employment, and never do any jail time. i don’t think it is racist. the judge probably just feels that he is making life in america easier on them, and perhaps if they had been given the chance to take classes, pass the GED, etc. they would not have been conspiring to commit robberies.

  • Mina

    “learning english is very easy for native spanish speakers; as easy as it is for native english speakers to learn spanish.”
    How easy it is varies from individual to individual. I started learning Spanish at age 12, took years of it in school, and still found it difficult even though Spanish is easier for English speakers than most other Roman alphabet using languages, let alone anything which doesn’t use the Roman alphabet, are.

  • A male

    I am not going to deny any racial element to this story, or claim the judge or his comments were not racist. However, consider the charge:
    “The four, ranging in age from 17 to 22, were in a group that police said accosted two men on a street in May. The two said they were asked if they had marijuana, told to empty their pockets, struck on the head, threatened with a gun and told to stay off the block.”
    So, convicted of this, I can live outside and study something against my will – OR go to jail for two years? Guess which I’ll choose?
    Would there be an issue here if the judge had kept his opinion and creativity to himself, and simply sentenced them to two years? I do not consider that excessive for armed robbery with a deadly weapon and battery.

  • mandalanis

    I thought this was a blog about feminism?? Everyday it seems like more and more entries are focused on topics other than feminism. If I wanted to read about other worldly injustices, I’d go to another blog. I wish the writers would stay focused. If not, I’ll go to another feminist site that blogs about that.

  • 007femme

    oops! i totally forgot that feminism is only for and about white women. I keep thinking it’s for everyone. Thanks for reminding me mandalanis!!

  • GamesOnline

    I agree with leah, his intentions were not as good as some commenters are making them out to be. However, I do like the requirement that they get a GED.free online games