Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mixed messages on graffiti in Nueces County: Will 8 year sentence solve anything?

I'm sure the judge who gave this sentence did so believing it would "send a message," but the message it sends to me is that the judge has no sense of proportion:
A south Texas district judge has sentenced an 18-year-old man to eight years in prison for habitually vandalizing property with graffiti.

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.

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.

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:


Robert Langham said...

Situations like this make you think that some light forms of corporal punishment should be brought back. Caning, stocks, electro-shock, water-boarding. For the judges of course.....not the perps.

The system is being broken by the folks that run it.

Anonymous said...

What is the judges name? Why doesn't the media print the judges name since he's costing the Texas tax payers all this money?

Anonymous said...

Class Grits liberalism. Forget the wrongdoer. Punish the judge. A Grits world would be bizarro.

Anonymous said...

The article doesn't actually say the four 2-year sentences were stacked. And, under Texas law, the judge had no authority to stack the sentences. It's probably just the reporter jumping to that conclusion. And you, Grits, jumped to that conclusion as well because of your blinding liberalness, assuming the judge is an ass.

So, what you have is a repeat offender sentenced to 2 years. We accept your apology.

Anonymous said...

I bet this young man has a criminal history and I bet it includes graffiti.

Is it a stiff penalty, sure! However, the judge acted within the scope of his authority.

Anonymous said...

"...that's an expensive form of advertising - especially since most teen graff writers don't read the newspaper or monitor local judges' sentencing practices..."

Maybe more time and effort should be spent in the high schools teaching "crime X = punishment Y."

Punishment is only a deterrent if the would-be criminals know what the probable outcomes/punishments may be (They have their own cost-benefit analysis!). Also, this prevents the criminals from playing the "i didn't know" card, bringing back ACCOUNTABILITY.

(...Wise men learn from the mistakes of others...)

Anonymous said...

Not knowing the value of the damage on each count, it's hard to calculate whether under the Code of Criminal procedure he would definitely be eligible, but this could be a good case for "shock probation" - give him a month or two to develop a strong aversion to prison and then get him out there on probation, scrubbing his handiwork off the local landscape. If he violates probation the judge can have another opportunity to grandstand, but at least this birdbrain would have had a chance to show that he can make it. But 8 years? I've seen sentences like that for infintely worse crimes.

Anonymous said...

A "habitual graffiti artist?" How the hell does graffiti spraying become a habit? Does graffiti have nicotine in it? Let's just call a spade a spade here. He's a serial vandalizer.
While we're doing our little comparitive economics study, Grits, why don't we look at the impact graffiti (usually gang related) has on area property values? What about how it deters economic development in the area? Got any figures on that?

Good for the judge for taking a firm stand and shame on Grits for distorting the facts!

Anonymous said...

Oh, and one other thing. Not only are real dollars lost in declining property values and lost economic development, presumably Nueces County and its local school districts rely on ad valorem taxes to finance local government services and schools. Here again, real dollars are lost due to the actions of some loser who gets his kicks with a spray can.

Ever tried to sell a house, Grits? Guess how many offers you'll get with gang graffiti on your neighborhood fences!

Anonymous said...

The voters need to get tough with the elected officials and send a message! Thanks for blowing a quarter mill on some punk kid. The correct punishment would be to make him clean up what he screwed up.

Anonymous said...

We have turned over our public places to these thugs with a spray can. Their spraying causes all of us to have to view their ugliness whether we want to or not. The most liberal of us pretend it is beauty because that crowd knows nothing but self deception.

Anonymous said...

I think if they know he did it he definitely should have to clean it up and restore the property.

If they wanted to punish him more harshly, after he'd refused to comply with being ordered to cease doing it, perhaps a month in jail would help.

Eight years seems cruel, excessive, and really kind of nuts.

Maybe even a temporary commitment to a mental institution or rehab of some sort. Pure jail for maybe even two months.

But eight years in prison for even repeated vandalism and obviously, sheer stupidity? That's really outrageous, no matter how offended and put out you are by such destructive and bad behavior.

Anonymous said...

I think we should incarcerate any and all graffiti artists, as well as anyone who sexually assualts an oyster!

peter said...

Grits - simply one of the best posts of the year.

Graffiti Task Force said...

Graffiti grows like weeds in the wind because there is no certainty of punishment. Punishment is rare because the criminal law requires an eye witness to convict. So, catching the culprit is a game of Hide-n-Seek.

The solution is simple: decriminalize the act, thereby eliminating the need for eye-witness testimony.

To solve the graffiti problem, the legislature must allow SOME graffiti acts to be treated not as a crime but as a civil case, much like a parking ticket. In other words, begin with equal justice for graffiti vandals.

Next, a police investigator who is not an eye-witness may then offer credible testimony to identify in an informal hearing who is responsible for the graffiti. If a judge accepts the evidence, accountability for bad behavior follows.

Like a parking ticket, proven guilt brings a fixed fine. Restorative Justice is, however, an option. Certainty of punishment is its own deterrent.

RAS said...

Even if he was given 8 years he'll be out in 2 or less. Maybe the judge stacked the sentences so he'd have to stay more a few months.

Anonymous said...

The arrogant prosecutor (1:40) is right that the sentences can't be stacked if the cases were pled at the same time. If the Judge ordered they are stacked then the sentences are voidable. Since the kid got 2 years on at least one State Jail sentence the arrogant Prosecutor should know that time has to be done day for day. Meaning at a minimum the cost is $50,000 to tax payers. If the kid got probation he could have done some jail time as a condition of probabtion and be ordered to repay the $7,500 over time and to clean up the mess plus court costs. These crimes, like many, but especially this one, piss people off. However, what Grits is simply saying is do a cost benefit analysis. It is the arrogant Prosecutor and 1:34 that we should be just as concerned about. They call themselves conservatives but would blow through tax payers dollars like the fools they are.

Mark # 1 said...

All the "teach the little punk a lesson and send a message" crowd are still failing to realize that prison cells are finite. By locking up this idiot, someone else who is an actual danger to other humans will necessarily be released. But guess who will be leading the pitchfork brigade if and when a parolee commits a real crime against a real person? That's right, the same "tuffies" who love to teach "lessons" and send "messages" to petty offenders like this foo.

Don said...

Some of the posts here are right--you don't do 8 years in state jail. They are two year sentences. State jail is designed to be a two year max. Can't stack them, legally.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Just now looking at this comment string.

To 1:34 who claimed the article doesn't say the sentences were stacked, and to Don who says stacking state jail sentences is illegal, here's the direct quote from the linked Caller-Times article:

"State District Judge Marisela SaldaƱa sentenced him to the maximum two years in a state jail on each count. He broke into loud sobs when the judge announced her decision to stack the sentences."

Maybe the reporter got it wrong, but otherwise that seems pretty clear to me.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Also, re: declining property values, that's a good point on the cost-benefit scale, though even including it I don't think it gets you close to matching the direct costs of incarceration - particularly when you take into account related variables like overall crime rate that more directly affect homebuying decisions. Also, the school district loses the per diem money it would have gotten if the defendant had gone back to finish high school as he said he wanted to do.

What homeowners want most - and what most protects property values - is rapid cleanup, an idea I've promoted heavily on this blog as a more important priority than incarceration for reducing graffiti offenses. In the best of all possible worlds, graffiti offenders should be sentenced to graff cleanup details as a condition of community supervision.

Long sentences don't benefit the homeowners nearly as concretely as does rapidly cleaning up property. By contrast, many cities fine homeowners and businesses if they don't promptly clean up graff. That's punishing crime victims through the justice system, not helping them, and seems to me a bit like the tail wagging the dog.

Anonymous said...

Graffiti clean up is not a consequence nor is it appropriate community service.

Like was previously mentioned, graffiti artists are difficult to catch and if they know that clean up is the consequence, there is no deterent value.

8 years in the pokie!! That will make them think. I applaud the judge.

Graffiti Task Force said...


Methinks you are talking in circles when you argue for "rapid cleanup" and "graffiti offenders should be sentenced". So long as graffiti is a crime, the U.S. Constitution requires an eye-witness to convict and sentence.

Current law make graffiti a game of Hide-n-Seek. If the vandal can't be identified in court, how can there be a conviction? One town tracked 11,500 graffiti crimes but prosecuted only 50. That's less than 4/10 of 1% !

The only way out of your dilemma is to allow a police investigator who is not an eye-witness to offer credible testimony to identify in an informal hearing who is responsible for the graffiti. If a judge accepts the evidence, accountability for bad behavior follows.

A simple change in State law will give you the rapid cleanup you desire, but at no cost to the homeowners.

Anonymous said...

8 years for graffiti? Ridiculous. Lemme share a story with you guys. In 199X, I was sentenced to 3 years in prison in in the state of xxxxxxxxxx for graffiti. Even though I was a non-violent offender, and an overall non-violent person, I had to spend that time with the worst human beings you could ever imagine. Rapist, murderers, gang members, etc, etc. I watched people get stabbed, raped, beaten almost daily. I watched race riots. I saw people get ALL of their teeth knocked out their heads. It almost destroyed my family and personal sanity. I also watched meth cooks and violent offenders get faaar less time then me. You know the end result more than 10 years later??? I still write graffiti. I've traveled all over the United States and headed one of the most well known graffiti in the entire world. You could ask a graffiti writer in Sweden if he heard of me or my graffiti crew and the answer would be yes. I've dedicated my entire life to graffiti and taking back public space.
So I ask, in handing down "tuff" sentences, are you deterring graffiti or making monsters???

Anonymous said...

All that sentencing people to hard crime for non-violent offenses does is to teach them how to be more deceptive. If the judge wanted to send a message, he would have this kid showing others what it looks like to spend the time to clean it up and to send any money you make to the restitution fund. Prison becomes a status symbol on the street so he will just be more careful next time.
Oh, I think sexually assauting an oyster becomes a felony when you use a spray can if the oyster is a minor.

Graffiti Task Force said...

Anonymous is right. Incarceration is overkill for SOME graffiti crimes. A better use of tax dollars is to make graffiti an expensive habit.

The first step is to identify the vandal in an informal hearing, much like a parking ticket. That requires a simple change in State law. A peace officer may then qualify as an expert to offer credible testimony, including hearsay, that identifies who is responsible for the graffiti. Proof of guilt guarantees a fine set by ordinance.

Police know who is destroying your neighborhood. There is no reason why they should not testify as experts. Money talks. For those who don't get the message, like Anonymous, graffiti can become a very expensive habit.

Cosquin said...

The condo complex where I live occasionally gets hit with graffiti, perhaps twice every six months. We clean it up ASAP.

I concur with Grits that cleanup is the foundation of a good anti-graffiti policy. Graffiti artists do it so their work can be seen. If their work gets consistently painted over, they lose heart. The NYC subway system turned it around by keeping the trains clean, not by giving massive sentences.

That graffiti artist should have been to work on restitution: cleaning up graffiti, in the form of hours of Community Service and Restitution.