Criminal mischief is the crime of damaging property owned by another person. Criminal mischief is also commonly known as "vandalism," though it can also share elements of theft or product tampering. In most jurisdictions, criminal mischief can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the dollar value of the property affected.
Most statutes define criminal mischief as the knowing and intentional damage or destruction of property owned by another. A person may damage or destroy her own property without violating criminal mischief laws. However, depending on the circumstances, destroying one's own property may constitute disorderly conduct or another crime. Additionally, criminal mischief is pervasive and has an extensive economic impact. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, vandalism at construction sites alone comprises over $1 billion dollars per year. Schools and public facilities also experience hundreds of dollars of criminal mischief damage each year.
Graffiti and Tampering
Some state laws specifically include graffiti and product tampering in their definitions of criminal mischief. For example, Alaska law states that tampering with air, food or water is Class B felony criminal mischief. Under Texas law, criminal mischief includes tampering as well as intentionally making "markings, inscriptions, slogans, drawings or paintings on the tangible property of another."
Most jurisdictions allow criminal mischief to be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the dollar value of the property damage. New Hampshire law defines felony criminal mischief as property damage over $1,000 in value. Texas law creates seven categories of criminal mischief penalties: Class A, B, and C misdemeanors for property damage from $50 to $1500; state jail felony for damage from $1,500 to $20,000; and three categories of felony for damage upwards of $20,000.
Penalties for criminal mischief may include jail time as well as an order to pay restitution to repair the damage or replace the destroyed item. Cases in which there is only minor damage, first-time offenders, youth and other defendants can often take advantage of court diversion or community reparative board programs to avoid lasting criminal sanctions.
Criminal mischief is a common charge against youth. According to parental advocate Sue Scheff, teens commit vandalism as a bonding activity, to exact revenge or because they are bored. In such cases, criminal mischief may be charged as juvenile delinquency instead of being levied as an adult crime.
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