Friday, March 13, 2009

Kids do less art in school, more in street; Lege reacts with hammer

If the only tool you have is a hammer, the saying goes, then everything looks like a nail. On graffiti, apparently, the only tool the Legislature understands is the hammer, with three bills up in a House Criminal Jurisprudence subcommittee on property crimes Monday all boosting penalties for graffiti (and all backed by Democrats, incidentally).

At this point, graffiti crimes have been enhanced so many times that further penalty increases can only be viewed, IMO, as acts of showmanship rather than statesmanship. Lawmakers want to be seen as doing something about graffiti in reaction to angry constituents, but the only thing anyone ever does is jack up penalties, which has basically done nothing to abate the problem.

One bill by Martinez Fischer focuses on making graffiti offenders pay property owners restitution, which would be fine if the clearance rate for graffiti crimes weren't well below 1%, making the bill essentially irrelevant in the real world for 99+% of people whose property is tagged.

Another by Kent would reduce the amount of damage triggering a Class B misdemeanor from $500 to $300. The fiscal note says there's no significant impact to counties because higher fines will cover the costs, but that's a highly questionable suggestion. Counties must provide indigent counsel, etc., for B misdemeanors, plus greater prosecution and jail costs. A Class C requires no counsel to be appointed, no jail time, and minimal prosecution costs - it's the equivalent of a ticket. So in practice, this will be an unfunded mandate on counties, even if LBB (as usual) claims falsely that it'd be a freebie.

A third bill by Walle would require people put on probation for graffiti crimes to perform community service, which seems like something that's probably already happening anyway. These aren't the only graffiti enhancements being proposed, either, just the ones up on Monday.

While these bills flail with a hammer at the problem (at this point punching holes in the wall instead of pounding a nail), we see a telling item over at the Houston Chronicle's Texas Politics blog which informs us that "Music, fine arts are seeking more respect" at the Legislature, noting that Texas schools have seen the arts de-prioritized to focus on the TAKS test. As a result, Texas experienced "a drop in middle school fine arts participation from 75 percent student participation in 1999 to 66 percent in 2006."

Perhaps relatedly, during this same period in Texas graffiti crimes soared; the amount of graffiti in Austin, for example, increased 400% from 2002 to 2007. So kids are doing less art in school and more out in the streets. But all legislators can think to do is increase punishments, not artistic opportunities.

Maybe it's time for legislators to set down the hammer and pick up a different tool by expanding legal, acceptable opportunities for youth art, both in schools and public spaces?

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

You go Mr. Grits....they also keep trying to take these kids driver's licenses away which creates a lot of paperwork for DPS and accomplishes nothing! Don't they get it that the Kids that are willing to paint on someone else's property are also very willing to drive without a license...DUH!

Anonymous said...

Scott, how do I send you an email?

Gritsforbreakfast said...


Anonymous said...

Looks to me that, as usual, the wrong committee is trying to solve the wrong problem

Duh! This is Texas isn't it?