Juvenile Vandalism: Laws and Penalties

The crime of vandalism, sometimes called malicious mischief, criminal mischief, or property damage, occurs whenever someone intentionally damages property that belongs to someone else.

By , J.D.

The crime of vandalism, sometimes called malicious mischief, criminal mischief, or property damage, occurs whenever someone intentionally damages property that belongs to someone else. Juvenile vandalism is any vandalism performed by a person under the age of 18. All states criminalize vandalism, though the language state laws use to describe the offense often differs. Regardless of how state laws describe the crime, all states criminalize the act of vandalism.

If you're an adult facing vandalism charges, please see Vandalism.


States do not have separate laws on vandalism and teen vandalism. Instead, vandalism laws apply to everyone regardless of a person's age. When a person under the age of 18 commits vandalism, that person is dealt with through the juvenile justice system. In this system, a prosecutor must still show that vandalism occurred, but the way the courts deal with the crime and the juvenile offender is very different than the way an adult court would deal with it.


Vandalism occurs when a person damages someone else's property without the owner's permission. Any action that causes actual physical harm to property, or that diminishes the property's value, qualifies as vandalism. For example, common activities such as breaking windows, keying cars, or tagging structures with paint or other forms of graffiti count as vandalism. As long as you are not the owner of the property, or do not have the owner's permission, any damage to any property is covered under vandalism laws. The damage can be very slight, and the property can be real estate, personal property, or property owned by the public.

Intentional acts

A person cannot accidentally commit vandalism. Vandalism requires that a person have the intent to act in a way that results in property damage, even if the person didn't intend to cause the specific damage to the property. For example, let's say that you put some money in a vending machine, choose a candy bar, but the candy bar gets stuck and doesn't drop down. You then start kicking and punching the machine in an attempt to get your candy. If you cause damage to the machine, you can be convicted of vandalism because you intended to kick or punch the machine. That you only intended to recover your candy and did not mean to damage the machine doesn't matter. As long as you acted intentionally and those actions resulted in damage, you can be convicted of vandalism.

Juvenile Vandalism Penalties

Whenever a teen is accused of a crime, that juvenile is dealt with through the juvenile justice system. In the juvenile justice system, courts and prosecutors have a much broader range of options then they would if an adult had committed the same crime.

With juvenile offenses, a court can order a range of penalties as punishment for a juvenile vandalism offense. The type of penalties a court imposes will differ significantly from case to case. The court will weigh a number of factors in determining the appropriate punishment. This means that even though fines or confinement may be possible punishments for vandalism in your state, that doesn't necessarily mean a juvenile court judge will impose that punishment.

  • Restitution. In many teen vandalism cases, a court will order the juvenile to pay restitution to the property owner. Restitution is simply money that allows the property owner to repair or replace the damaged property. As part of the restitution order, the judge may require the juvenile to either find or maintain employment.
  • Fines. Courts may also impose a fine for acts of juvenile vandalism. Fines can differ widely, but can be as much as $500 or more for minor acts of vandalism, or several thousands of dollars or more for more significant damage. Unlike restitution, the juvenile must pay the fine to the court as punishment for the vandalism. In some states, if the juvenile is not able to pay the fine court can require the juvenile's parents or legal guardians to do so.
  • Probation. Courts can order a juvenile to serve probation term for a vandalism offense. Juvenile probation usually lasts about 12 months or more, during which time the juvenile must perform specific tasks. For example, the court will often require the juvenile to stay in school, maintain employment, meet with social workers or counselors, and not commit any more offenses. If the juvenile fails to live up to the probation terms, the court will often order a harsher penalty, such as juvenile detention.
  • Diversion. In some situations, prosecutors may agree to a juvenile diversion program. Diversion is similar to probation in that it also requires a juvenile to comply with specific terms. However, if the juvenile successfully completes the diversion program, the prosecutor then agrees to drop the charges. Diversion is typically only possible with first time offenders that have committed vandalism that wasn't very damaging or significant.
  • Detention. In the most severe cases, the court can order a juvenile into a juvenile detention center. The court may order a full-time detention, weekend stays, or transfer to a juvenile home that has enhanced supervision. The length of detention can differ significantly, and juvenile detention is usually given only in cases where the juvenile is a repeat offender or when the circumstances of the case are particularly egregious.

    Speak to a Lawyer

    Juvenile offenders have the right to legal counsel just as adults do. Because juvenile courts have such broad discretion in how they handle teen vandalism cases, the facts and arguments your lawyer brings to the court can really make a difference. It's important to speak to a local criminal defense attorney who has experience with the juvenile prosecutors and judges in your area. Your lawyer will be able to review your case and give you legal advice based on your individual situation. Whether you are juvenile or parent whose child has been charged, it's important you find a good lawyer to speak to as soon as possible.

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