Some civil rights activists were outraged when a Rutgers student recently received a 30-day jail term for secretly recording the sexual encounter of a gay dorm-mate who a few days later committed suicide.
But 13 years ago, a high-profile hate crime in Burlington County ended with a judge giving the guilty a homework assignment. After 3 young men admitted they had carved a swastika in a cornfield and harrassed African Americans for years, they were placed on probation and ordered to write essays on Roots, Native Son and Schindler's List.
The two cases are somewhat similar. In each one, the defendants could have gotten 10 years in jail since bias crimes can double the penalty. Quickly, some activists complained that the judges had failed to send a strong message to those who might commit hate crimes.
But others pointed out the wisdom of using education and community service to fight bigotry, especially when the crimes are non-violent and are committed by misguided youth who have no criminal records.
Last week Dharun Ravi began serving his sentence in Middlesex County for invading the privacy of his dorm-mate. Later, he will have to perform community service. If he remains out of trouble, his record could be erased.
Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman said that Ravi was guilty of "colossal insensitivity," but he was not likely to commit another crime.
His parents had insisted Ravi was an immature 18-year-old college student at the time and had learned his lesson - especially under an international media glare.
In the Burlco case, 3 men in their early 20s were also given a break. They admitted they terrorized a neighborhood by throwing dead animals at homes, spray-painting KKK on streets, and crank-calling an elderly African American woman and subjecting her to her racial epithets. But they had no criminal records and expressed remorse.
Steven Altman, Ravi's lawyer, also defended one of the Burlco men - Jason Gancarz. Altman said he took Gancarz to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and noticed that Gancarz was moved. Altman said Gancarz just needed a chance to learn.
Judge Marvin Schlosser, now retired, agreed to place the men on probation and order community service. Then, he assigned 1,000-word essays to help them understand "the issue of hatred and its effects on people who are oppressed."