"The graffiti problem is completely out of hand in Corpus Christi ," Ortiz said. "Vandals are indiscriminately tagging homes, buildings, and fences throughout the city, without any concern for public or private property. This bill gives law enforcement the tools it needs to combat this blight on the community."
HB 385 adds a felony graffiti offense to the list of offenses eligible for prosecution under the organized crime designation, allowing prosecutors to seek higher penalties for gang-related graffiti.
"The Corpus Christi Police Department (CCPD) knows that much of the graffiti in Corpus is connected to gang rivalries," Ortiz said. "This provision will allow CCPD to go after and break up graffiti gangs."
The bill also changes the definition of graffiti to include markings made by any kind of paint, instead of just aerosol paint. In addition, it adds graffiti to the list of crimes where contraband can be seized, and expands the list of contraband items to include cameras and laptops that graffiti taggers use to publicize their crimes on the internet.
Ironically, Ortiz's approach to graffiti builds on Corpus Christi's failures at graffiti enforcement instead of capitalizing on its successes. Corpus Christi is already doing much more on the civilian side to combat graffiti than the police are doing to address it. This is a purely symbolic bill that will do little to reduce real-world graffiti, even in the smallest quantum.
Corpus has an excellent anti-graffiti program run by the city. By contrast, police there have identified dozens of individual taggers but it's both difficult and, overall, ineffective to make those cases.
That's why Corpus police want bigger penalties for the handful of taggers they occasionally do catch, but that's not an effective anti-graffiti strategy, even if it may be more emotionally satisfying for police.
Think of the cost benefit analysis: Felony graffiti is already a mandatory two-year minimum state jail felony. Enhance that upward and say an offender is given a 5 year sentence. That's about $90,000 in current dollars just for TDCJ incarceration costs (forget all the myriad collateral consequences and court expenses). By comparison, Corpus Christi spends less than $80K on a truck to go around cleaning graffiti up, a tactic which a) actually reduces graffiti (unlike incarceration) and b) is popular with homeowners and businesses who're victimized.
So to incarcerate one person under this proposal would likely cost more than doubling Corpus Christi's graffiti cleanup capacity. Can that really be a wise investment of taxpayer dollars? Corpus Christi already arrests a lot of people for graffiti, and it hasn't stopped the problem yet.
The other portion of the bill - making cameras and laptops used to publicize tags into contraband - appears to defy the notion that the legislation targets gangbangers. Instead, who you're more likely to rope in with that tactic is a serious artist with a rebellious streak who dabbles in graffiti. Some taggers have famously gone on to become world reknowned artists. Would we want to prevent, for example, the emergence of a Texas Banksy or Lee Quinnones?
Nobody would view a website of gangbangers posting their tags - trust me when I say it's a chore to draw web traffic and that type of content won't cut it. This aspect of the bill targets only artistic graffiti, not the gang stuff.
Finally, I think about the anonymous web author (including this one in particular) who may or may not be a tagger but publicizes illegal graffiti using photos and the web. Will they be subject to investigation to see WHETHER they put up any of the tags on the site just because s/he's publicizing them? Their anonymity means it's unknown whether they're responsible for any of it; would that be probable cause for a search warrant to seize a computer under HB 385? Possibly - it's opening the door to a slippery slope.
In general I'm biased against solving social problems with criminal penalties, which, is how I view this legislation. Focusing on criminal enforcement expends resources on a strategy that simply has never, anywhere on the planet, reduced graffiti from the time of the Roman Empire until today.
That said, I'm also adamantly against creating more nonviolent felony crimes, so I'll admit my position on this bill is biased by that perspective. Texas currently has labeled 2,324 separate acts felonies and for too long relied too heavily on incarceration as the sole means for addressing social problems. Particularly regarding artistic graffiti (as opposed to the gangbanger variety), I'd rather see leaders who are asking, as a Saudi prince recently asked in response to a graffiti upsurge in Jiddah:
"What have we done for young people? Have we asked them what they need or want?" said Abo-Umara, wearing a flowing white head scarf and long robe. "Until I talk to them and find out why they are scribbling all over Jiddah and do my part in offering them the services we're supposed to provide, then I can't punish or criticize them."
If I were going to write an anti-graffiti bill, my own preference would be to REDUCE felony graffiti to a Class A misdemeanor and use the savings in the fiscal note for grants to buy graffiti cleanup trucks like they have in Corpus and fund graffiti abatement programs staffed with probationers on community service. That approach would actually reduce graffiti in Texas, whereas, based on all historical examples, boosting penalties likely will not.
See related Grits posts:
- Toward a restorative graffiti policy
- Graffiti, art, vandalism and subversion
- Graffiti solutions: A cost-benefit analysis
- Paint responsibly: Museum offers hands-on graffiti exhibit
- Creating public spaces for invited art adds carrot to stick of banning uninvited graff
- Mexico prevents graffiti by encouraging it at El Azteca Stadium
- Moscow turns to invited graffiti to liven up Soviet era buildings
- Adidas: Graffiti is legitimate art
- Grading graffiti? What do youth want?
- Graffiti on the brain and around the world
- Digital graffiti, or, Is there something to a wall that wants us to write on it?
- R.I.P. Victor Montano: Houston graffiti artist
- Can you be arrested for public knitting?
- Amarillo PD pressures businesses to file graffiti charges
- Out of our minds: Isn't felony graffiti overkill for sixth graders?
- Charging graffiti as a state jail felony?
- Reduce graffiti by pursuing the crime, not the criminal
- Graffiti in Austin up 400% since 2002
- Austin lags on important third component of graffiti policy