A south Texas district judge has sentenced an 18-year-old man to eight years in prison for habitually vandalizing property with graffiti.The judge stacked sentences for three separate graffiti offenses and a marijuana charge to get the eight years. There's no mention of prior criminal history in the Caller-Times coverage, although prosecutors say he violated pretrial supervision.
Sebastian Perez had pleaded guilty in a Corpus Christi state district court to three graffiti charges, as well as to marijuana possession.
Perez told the judge that spray-painting graffiti had become became a habit, but he stopped when he realized it was getting him nowhere. He cried and asked for probation, saying he would finish high school, get a job and help clean up the mess. The judge, unmoved, assessed the maximum sentence.
Police say Perez spray-painted more than two dozen properties from March to August. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports that police blamed him for more than $7,300 in damage, leaving his mark on everything from fences and homes to a medical clinic and traffic signs.
So let's add up the cost-benefit analysis for a moment. Eighteen-year old commits $7,300 worth of damage. That's one cost. Then there's the cost of incarceration. State jail felonies must be served day for day so he'll do eight full years. At current cost per prisoner of around $25,000 per annum, that's $200,000 spent to punish him (plus whatever the costs were to arrest, prosecute, etc.). Meanwhile, because he's incarcerated he cannot a) pay restitution to victims, b) earn a living or c) pay taxes. Over eight years, conservatively, perhaps that's another $150-$200K in lost wages and tens of thousands in sales and property taxes that won't be paid. Then there's the lifetime's worth of lower earning potential.
In all, the punishment for a $7,300 crime will directly cost taxpayers perhaps a quarter-million (2009) dollars over the next eight years, with even greater economic consequences overall - all so the judge can look "tuff" for a day in the newspaper.
Meanwhile, there are the indirect costs: Whenever some violent offender is paroled and commits more crimes once they're out, the "tuff on crime" crowd trots out the example to insist we must build more prisons to house society's most dangerous people. In reality, though, it's pressure from long incarceration stints for petty, nonviolent offenders like Mr. Perez that fill up prisons needlessly - as former House Corrections Chairman Ray Allen was fond of saying - with people who we're only "mad at" instsead of those we're "afraid of." Otherwise, there'd be plenty of space.
The police department's graffiti coordinator crowed that the sentence would "send a strong message to other would-be vandals." But that's an expensive form of advertising - especially since most teen graff writers don't read the newspaper or monitor local judges' sentencing practices. Eight years from now, no graff writer in Corpus will remember Mr. Perez or his sentence, but taxpayers will still be footing the bill for his incarceration. Can it really be true that there's no community supervision regimen in Nueces County capable of restraining Mr. Perez and providing restitution to property owners? Why should taxpayers foot the bill for his room and board? And even if prison is appropriate, was stacking sentences really necessary for public safety?
For several years now Nueces County has been handing out among the longest sentences in the state for graffiti (that I'm aware of, anyway), but every time I speak to anyone from Corpus Christi about the issue they say it's getting worse and worse. So I have little reason to believe this "message" will deter the problem any more than have past felony graffiti sentences.
This isn't really about sending a message to graff writers but to voters. It's the kind of judicial pandering to public opinion that makes folks like Sandra Day O'Connor say judges shouldn't be elected.
Ironically, at the same time the public is being asked to believe this sentence will "send a strong message" and thus somehow - perhaps through osmosis - solve the graffiti problem, Corpus Christi's police department actually removed two investigators from its graffiti task force to shift them back to patrol duties. What message does that send? A similar one to the judge's sentence, actually: That they care more about appearances and public relations than reducing graffiti.
RELATED: See coverage of two Austin-based graff writers being charged in Travis County with Class A misdemeanors.
See related Grits posts:
- Toward a restorative graffiti policy
- Graffiti solutions: A cost-benefit analysis
- Creating public spaces for invited art adds carrot to stick of banning uninvited graff
- Invited graffiti: Solution or enabling for unwanted tags?
- Grading graffiti? What do youth want?
- Paint responsibly: Museum offers hands-on graffiti exhibit
- Allowing invited graff best way to reduce unwanted graffiti
- Gittin' tuff on graffiti spawns more of it in Corpus Christi
- 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
- Kids do less art in school, more in streets; Lege reacts with hammer