Thursday, December 11, 2008

Boosting penalties wrong approach on graffiti

Given this blog's past focus municipal graffiti policies (see below), I was interested to receive a copy of a press release from Rep. Solomon Ortiz, Jr.'s office about HB 385 proposing penalty enhancements for certain graffiti crimes. From the release:

"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:


Anonymous said...

I have seen quite a bit of Banksy's work and it is great to see. At the "Cans Festival" in London thousands of people turned up to see it. I guess they dont like anything artistic in Texas. By the way most local councils in London now train thier graffiti clean up crews to recognise Banksy's work.

Anonymous said...

I just don't get where you guys are coming from on this issue. I live in a city of 100,000 people and graffiti is becoming a big problem. IT IS NOT beautiful works of art but rather thugs tagging buildings with gang related drawings. It is a criminal act and needs to be prosecuted.

But who knows, maybe I am wrong. Maybe they were abused as kids and need a hug.......

Anonymous said...


"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."

Biased on perspective or personal history?! lol! Grits, you've found a more effective way to express yourself as opposed to tagging, so admit it. But I bet you were cool back then, like foot loose cool.

We had this conversation 2 years ago when my daughter, the student counsel president of the 5th grade was cold busted writing "I love Jeffery" on her bathroom stall wall, and had to present a public campaign against tagging the stalls and walls of her school.

Jeffery's long gone after that ordeal. 20.00 bucks out of my pocket, and we avoided a felony charge which could've sent my student council prez to the TYC - eh-hem... Oh, she knows now. Never tagged since.

Happy Holidays Grits, even though UT was screwed, my horns are up!


Anonymous said...

Felony graffiti? I have never heard of such a thing.

I favor restitution over imprisonment. What good does imprisonment of the taggers do for the actual victims? And--I don't mean restitution after imprisonment or a felony conviction. As far as I'm concerned, such is for the benefit of the state(or emotional satisfaction as you put it)--not the righting of wrongs against individuals.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Anon 8:34 - You're reacting to some baseless stereotype, not anything I've written. Texas has been trying to stop graffiti by prosecution and boosting penalties for years, and as you say, the problem is getting worse, not better.

I'm proposing cleaning graffiti up, a tactic that will actually reduce unwanted tags, whereas for every tagger prosecuted there are a dozen more to take their place and the taxpayers must foot the (ever growing) bill for their incarceration. Why would anyone prefer that outcome? Jerri Lynn asked the right question - what good does incarceration do for the victims? Not nearly as much as rapid cleanup.

Whitsfoe, happy holidays to you, too. Glad to hear your daughter made it out of that scrape in one piece before some of these penalty enhancing lawnorder types got hold of her. ;)

Red Leatherman said...

(sarcastic retort)
Of course it will cost millions more to prosecute than it would to clean it up, but cost cannot be a consideration when it comes to the law.
HB 385 can if not already be expanded to prosecute anyone found in possession of paint in any form without a permit. Dealers could be prosecuted if their inventory and records fail to pass an extensive and frequently performed auditing method. We can form a multilevel task force dedicated to the solution. Our tax dollars at work.
After we quickly get graffiti and drugs under control we can work on those evil litterbugs.

Anonymous said...

Take a finger the first time, then the whole hand, the second time. The word will pass quickly to correct the issue. Works for the Turks.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Have you ever been to Turkey, 12:57? FWIW, on two different occasions I spent a full month there with the missus on extended holidays - the first time traveling all over the western third of the country visiting sites from Herodotus' Histories, and the second mostly in central Turkey, Cappadocia, etc. visiting ancient Christian shrines. From that experience, I can tell you for sure there are plenty of Turkish graff writers, no doubt - some artistic, some garbage.

I also don't buy the meme about Turks cutting off hands, fingers, etc. - that's an Islamic punishment (see the Taliban, etc.) whereas Turkey is a secular state. I never saw anyone walking around with severed appendages in all the time I was there (including in rural regions and many non-touristy areas of Istanbul). You'd think if that were the official penalty for ANYTHING, you'd occasionally see somebody meeting that description, but ... no. I think that's folklore, or rather, BS.

Anonymous said...

Grits, I'm suprised at you. Are you gullible, or closed minded? Did you take the notorious American Turkey tour, where you see what they want you to see? Not BS, or fokelore. I lived in Turkey for three years and worked with the US Embassy and ambassadors. We worked with the Turkish police and visited the prisons there, too often. They do indeed cut off limbs, and they take off the heads for some crimes. Some are public executions. I was all over their country from Izmir (Smyrna), Instanbul(Constantonapol), Diyarbakir, and the capitol, Ankara. East Turkey is completely different from West Turkey. Some of the Americans in prison there thought they knew Turkish laws also, until they were thrown in their jails and prisons. Drugs are everywhere, but don't get caught with any. Did you visit the Karahani? It's bad too, but its there just the same. Did you show them the bottoms of your shoes? Hope not, they may have thrown their's at you, like they did to President Bush, today! Alas mali dict( see you later).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If you're talking about what goes on in Eastern Turkey in the fight against the Kurds, that's not remotely the same as cutting off people's hands for graffiti in urban settings, which from what I saw simply does not occur on any sizable scale, or if it does, it certainly doesn't deter Turkish graffiti artists.

Bring forward a documented example of someone having an appendage cut off for graffiti crime and we'll go from there.

Anonymous said...

The best treatment for graffiti is to paint it over. This deprives the "artist" of recognition. Keep painting it over, and it will stop.

Instead of fines, "community service" painting graffiti over.
But best to have someone paint over the graffiti as soon as it is detected- faster, and doesn't have to wait for the criminal justice system.

Anonymous said...

My soon as it appears, cover it up. The thugs will soon discover that the public is sick of their thuggist gang attitudes. If this doesn't work...kill them on contact. Mothers seeing their own blood on the streets does much to help the situation,,,plus stop the outrageous births!