Friday, April 24, 2009

More graffiti shennanigans in the House

Having added graffiti to the friggin' organized crime statute yesterday, today the Texas House will hear yet another bill boosting penalties for graffiti, HB 1633 by Walle et. al., making graffiti of any amount a felony on the third offense and boosting restitution and community service requirements, combining the contents of several different pieces of legislation. When those bills were heard in committee, I wrote:
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.
The fact is, penalty hikes are among the least effective ways to reduce graffiti because a) penalties have already been increased many times and b) so few people are arrested for the offense, particularly compared to the tens of thousands of separate graffiti offenses committed statewide every year (much of which goes unreported). Austin alone had more than 15,000 reported graffiti incidents in 2007. By contrast, according to the criminal justice impact statement for the bill:
In fiscal year 2008, approximately 174 persons [statewide] were placed on community supervision (42 felony and 132 misdemeanor), approximately 29 persons were admitted to state jail, and one person was admitted to prison for the offense of graffiti. Based on arrest history data, direct court sentencing trends, and revocation rates, approximately 14 percent of the individuals would be sentenced to a term of incarceration in a state jail and approximately 21 percent of the individuals would be placed under felony community supervision annually as a result of the provision providing penalty enhancement for previous graffiti convictions.
So these "enhancements" will affect only a tiny number of people compared to the volume of graff writers out there, boosting the number sent to state jail from 29 to 47 in the first year. That's why I say such legislation is "just for show." It won't impact the amount of graffiti in the world substantially and instead is more about politicians wanting to look "tuff."

It will, though, cost the taxpayers. As usual for penalty enhancements, the fiscal note claims the bill will have "no significant fiscal implication," but that's just an official bureaucratic lie. Obviously, when you incarcerate more people it is not free. In reality, even at only 18 people per year and an average cost per day of $47.50 (according to LBB), HB 1633 will cost more than $300K in the first year and double that in the second, not to mention every year afterward.

That same analysis, btw, is true of every penalty hike for which the Legislative Budget Board says there's no significant fiscal imact - you don't get to incarcerate people for free and the no-cost estimates are just politicized math to allow the bills to pass without being required to allocate money to pay for them in the budget. How many legislators can think of a project for which they'd like to spend $900K over the next biennium? If the fiscal note were honest they could have that debate, but instead the Lege just pretends locking people up is free.

By contrast, in Corpus Christi it cost $77,000 to purchase a "graffiti buster" truck to actually remove graffiti, which is a much greater service to crime victims. For the cost of this bill in the next biennium, the Lege could issue grants to purchase 11-12 such trucks for use by local probation departments to clean up graffiti using probationers' community service hours. That approach would actually reduce graffiti significantly and get a lot closer to placating victims of graffiti crime. (But then they would have to admit the solution costs taxpayers money.)

Nothing will "solve" graffiti, which has been with us since ancient times; it can only be managed, IMO most successfully through a three-pronged approach of enforcement, rapid cleanup (hence my advocacy for the graffiti-buster trucks) and provision of public spaces for invited art.

This legislation is more an act of public relations than legitimate public policy, but if that's the goal it'd be cheaper for the taxpayers if the authors just issued a press release.

UPDATE: The bill was modified slightly with a house floor amendment suggested by the ACLU of Texas that applies the enhancement only when the defendant is older than 17 years of age.

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

What do you expect from these clowns? Here are some more shennanigans. Be sure and watch the video.

el_longhorn said...

To anonymous above, you do realize that items in Article XI are not actually funded, right? That is why it is called the wish list.