Criminal Justice

It Is Illiberal To Charge Teens With Felonies for Vandalizing a Pride Crosswalk

You don't promote acceptance by locking people up for victimless crimes.


Three teenagers were arrested last week for allegedly vandalizing a Pride crosswalk in Spokane, Washington, by running scooters over the mural to create skid marks.

Ruslan V.V. Turko, 19, and two unnamed minors were each charged with first degree malicious mischief, a felony. The criminal case pits two supposedly left-leaning values against each other: a desire to promote acceptance, and the idea that people should not be arrested and imprisoned for victimless crimes.

Let's first break each one down.

Is there any proof the teens were being intolerant, or is this a misunderstanding (especially when considering the mural is on a road, where people are indeed expected to drive)? When confronted by a bystander, one teen reportedly responded with "Fuck you, faggot." That would seem fairly instructive.

Yet in terms of the second prong, the question "Was this a victimless crime?" is almost hard to take seriously, because of course it was. Might it have caused hurt feelings? Sure. But no matter how unsavory the teens' actions, we shouldn't be prosecuting people for hurting feelings.

The natural response, I'd assume, is that they're not being prosecuted for upsetting people; they're being prosecuted for criminal mischief tied to their vandalism. That's true. But it is also true that these teens were not merely ticketed but arrested and booked into state custody—jumpsuits and all—for what was essentially a prank in poor taste. Is this supposed to make the people of Spokane feel safer? Is this a good use of taxpayers' dollars?

City leaders generally appear to think so. At a press conference in May after another act of vandalism on the same mural, City Councilmember Zack Zappone, a Democrat, said he was in the process of trying to set up a hate crimes hotline. City Council President Betsy Wilkerson, who ran in a nonpartisan race but is a Democrat who identifies as a progressive, announced that she was working in tandem with the Spokane police to bolster surveillance in the area. "I know it was called vandalism," she said, "but it was hate."

Such incidents could very well be fueled by hatred. But we do not jail people for having bigoted views. And at least in the case of the Spokane teens, one wonders what their potential incarceration—first degree criminal mischief is a class B felony carrying a sentence up to 10 years in prison—does to improve public safety.

Vandalism, of course, is wrong. So is calling anyone a slur. These things shouldn't need to be said. But if Spokane officials want to change the minds of prejudiced people, there are few approaches more counterproductive and illiberal than locking them up.