PHOTO: Graffiti

Vandals defaced a mural on Sophia Street depicting ‘The Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.’

SHOULD vandals who deface public and private buildings with graffiti be sent to jail? For two young men from Orange County who recently pleaded guilty to spray-painting 90 “tags” in downtown Fredericksburg this past May, the answer was yes.

Cameron Scott Baker, 19, of Locust Grove, agreed to serve a sentence of 12 months in jail, and Robert F. Singhass, 20, of Unionville, agreed to be incarcerated for six months under plea deals in which prosecutors dropped a felony charge against them and reduced another felony to a misdemeanor. They will also reportedly be ordered to pay thousands of dollars in restitution when they’re officially sentenced on Nov. 4.

Baker and Singhass were charged with defacing as many as 36 structures throughout the city, including “The Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862,” a popular mural on Sophia Street by Mirinda Reynolds honoring the nearly 1,700 soldiers who died in the city during one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War.

Fredericksburg police said images of the suspects were captured on video surveillance cameras, including one at the Sheetz store on Carl Silver Parkway in Central Park. A third suspect, also of Locust Grove, pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors, but those charges will be dismissed after she pays court costs, completes 75 hours of community service, and stays out of trouble for a year.

Make no mistake: Willfully defacing public or private property is not only an act of deep disrespect to the entire community, it’s also a crime. Vandalism of any kind diminishes property values and citizens’ ability to enjoy private and public spaces. So-called graffiti “artists” like Baker and Singhass are criminals who deserve to be punished.

The question is whether jail is an appropriate punishment for non-violent offenders who, unlike those accused of homicide, child abuse, rape, and robbery, pose no real threat to the public. Our criminal justice system has been too quick to put people behind bars who don’t need to be there.

But keeping non-violent offenders out of jail is not the same thing as declining to prosecute or punish them for their crimes. That’s where prosecutors and judges need to come up with other solutions, such as restricting them from returning to the scene of the crime and making them wear an ankle bracelet so law enforcement can monitor their every move.

In the case of the graffiti vandals, requiring them to personally scrub off all of their offensive “tags” under the watchful eyes of a court-appointed supervisor, coupled with a stiff fine, victim restitution and weekly visits to a probation officer might persuade the perpetrators that crime doesn’t pay. It would also save taxpayers some of the high cost of incarcerating them.

Defendants who fail to follow through on their punishment can always be sent to jail for non-compliance with a court order, a higher degree of lawlessness that indicates a disturbing lack of remorse and anti-social behavior that has a much higher chance of escalating to more serious criminal offenses.

Jail cells should be reserved for repeat and violent offenders whose release would seriously jeopardize public safety. Spray-painting a building, however odious, doesn’t rise to that level. Neither should the punishment.

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