Imagine if a dumb high school prank got you arrested, with the threat of 70 criminal charges that could impose a lifetime of punishment.
That was the potential fate of Hunter Osborn, a 19-year-old high school student in Arizona. After a teammate dared Osborn to stick out the top of his penis during the yearbook football picture, Osborn did just that.
As Patrick Redford reported for Deadspin, mayhem ensued. Osborn was arrested and faced 70 charges: 69 misdemeanor charges for indecent exposure — one for each person in the photo — and one felony charge for “furnishing harmful items to minors” (for exposing himself), according to local news station KPHO. The charges could have landed Osborn in prison.
But on Wednesday, officials announced they had dropped the charges against Osborn after all 69 people in the yearbook picture declined to file charges.
It is a ridiculous story. But it’s also an example of the overzealousness of the American justice system. After all, why were police and prosecutors involved in the first place?
It should go without saying that Osborn should not have done what he did. Still, he did not seriously harm anyone, and he probably had no malicious intent.
But it would have absolutely inflicted harm on Osborn if he had been convicted of the charges. He faced potential prison time and an obstructive arrest record — which may have hurt his chances of getting a job or housing in the future, among other consequences. (A 2003 study from researcher Devah Pager found, for example, that a criminal record can reduce someone’s chances of getting a callback for a job application by 50 percent.)
There were other costs, too: The case took resources from police and prosecutors to investigate, and it would have taken time and money from a trial court as it heard the case, as well as thousands of dollars for food, housing, and medical care, among other expenses, if Osborn had been put in jail or prison. (According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average prison inmate costs Arizona $24,805 each year.)
To put it another way, there was a serious risk here that the criminal justice system would inflict more pain on Osborn and costs on society than he inflicted on anyone else — all over a high school prank that parents and the school could have addressed by themselves. So it’s good there won’t be any charges, but it’s ridiculous they were possible in the first place.
Watch: How mandatory minimums helped drive mass incarceration