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North Carolina is making graffiti into a felony

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  1. North Carolina legislators voted this week to create the new crime of "graffiti vandalism" to punish people who spray paint on or deface public property, and to make three convictions of this crime a felony, the Associated Press reports.
  2. The house passed the measure Monday night in a 98-11 vote.
  3. According to WYFF,  local  prosecutors pushed lawmakers to make the change.

A piece of the mass incarceration puzzle

A felony conviction for writing on a wall three times strikes many people as overly punitive. "Basically your life is ruined if you get a felony," Asheville, North Carolina, resident Miles Allen told WYFF. "I mean, you can't get a job, you can't do any of this. And I think for something like artwork, why should your life be ruined for that?"

But that's not the only criticism of laws that make repeated graffiti into a more serious crime. As Vox's Dara Lind wrote in April in response to the introduction similar legislation in Nevada,  this type of harsh penalty, designed to be a deterrent, can actually contribute to mass incarceration:

Take the graffiti bill, for example, which would send someone to prison the third time he or she is convicted for graffiti. Someone convicted of a misdemeanor for graffiti already gets penalized — in part with community service, which, Yeager says, often involves cleaning up graffiti. Does it make sense, he asks, to lock that person up for more graffiti — or assign her to help clean it up?

What's going on in Nevada right now is a warning to the rest of the states that have made strides in criminal justice reform. Actually moving beyond mass incarceration, and shrinking prison capacity for good, requires more than a few years of attentiveness. It requires thinking about the bigger picture when considering individual bills, even those with "negligible" impacts. And it requires taking public safety seriously but asking "Does someone need to go to prison for this?" whenever the legislature wants to make something a crime — and forcing the bill's supporters to explain why the answer should be yes.

Lind has written before that incarceration rates are mostly due to government policies, not to crime rates — and North Carolina's new, harsher law against scribbling on walls may just be the perfect example of such a policy.