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’s 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 now faces 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 land Osborn in prison. (But the charges could change as the investigation continues, officials said.)
It is a ridiculous story. But it’s also an example of the overzealousness of the American justice system.
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 will absolutely inflict harm on Osborn if he’s convicted of these charges. He faces potential prison time and an obstructive arrest record — which may 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 are other costs, too: The case will take resources from the prosecutor’s office to investigate and prosecute, time and money from a trial court as it hears the case, and up to thousands of dollars for food, housing, and medical care, among other expenses, if Osborn is 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’s a serious risk here that the criminal justice system will 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.
Watch: How mandatory minimums helped drive mass incarceration