Thursday, February 02, 2012

'Sending a message' on graffiti: Two approaches

Regular readers know Grits thinks "sending a message" though criminal penalties is one of the worst communication methods imaginable. Almost no one actually reads the laws, the media never reports on most of them, and when they do they get things wrong 1/3 to 1/2 the time. Besides, few criminals read the newspaper. If you want to "send a message," in general buying billboard space or TV time is a far superior method to any criminal-law one might pass, and that goes triple for crimes with very low clearance rates. Which brings us to two recent stories about "sending a message" regarding graffiti. The first arises out of Corpus Christi, where local officials have been obsessed with graffiti enforcement now for several years now, to little practical effect judging from continued public outcries and media hype over the problem. A story from KVII-TV this week made the "send a message" goal explicit:
As the war on graffiti vandalism rages, a word of warning from the people who's job it is prosecute taggers.  They say you will be caught, arrested and more than likely will go to prison.  It's the type of vandalism that's more than just a costly nuisance.  It's a crime.  Prosecutors want to send out a message to all "taggers" reminding them that this crime will get you prison time.

"You have to be held accountable for what you do...and that's why you're going to be doing time behind bars," says prosecutor Joe Mike Pena.
The problem with that message is that much of it is a bold-faced lie, particularly the contention that "you will be caught, arrested and more than likely will go to prison." At least for 99.9% of graffiti crimes (less than one tagger is arrested per 1,000 offenses), the overwhelming majority of offenses go unsolved and are not prosecuted.

How likely is it that taggers will go to prison? According to the Criminal Justice Impact Statement for a recent graffiti enhancement bill (discussed in this Grits post): "In fiscal year 2010, 212 offenders were placed on misdemeanor community supervision, 56 offenders were placed on felony community supervision, and 21 offenders were admitted to prison or state jail." So that's 289 people total convicted and sentenced for graffiti crimes in FY 2010 statewide, most of them juveniles. By contrast, there were hundreds of thousands of tags thrown up in Texas in 2010. The chances of getting caught and convicted are, in fact, minuscule. And even for those convicted, most of them (rightly) received misdemeanor probation, with just 7% going to prison. (mostly those who tagged a church, school, or community center, which now carries an automatic state jail felony charge).

Two recurring Grits themes are that heightened criminal penalties can't solve every social problem and that penalty enhancements have little effect on crimes with low clearance rates. Both observations apply in spades to graffiti crimes. The "message" sent by jacking up punishments for the handful of people caught is not only rarely delivered, it's in some ways a counterproductive one, serving to glamorize the activity for rebellious youth without actually solving the problem.

Meanwhile, a different and far more effectively delivered message about graffiti is being trumpeted in Dallas, where graffiti artist Shepard Fairey (the man who did the Obama Hope posters and was featured in Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop) has been hired to paint a dozen large, outdoor murals. Reports the Morning News (behind paywall):
Fairey and his team fly in on Sunday and begin scouting 12 to 15 locations on Monday before pulling out the paintbrushes on Tuesday. The end result will be at least a dozen giant murals (with one stretching 150 feet wide) in such communities as West Dallas, Oak Cliff and Deep Ellum. Highland Park is not on the list.
Dallas Contemporary, which revels in the edginess of Fairey’s art, commissioned the project. Its director, Peter Doroshenko, loves Fairey’s ability to provoke reaction, no matter where his eerily bold images leave their imprint.

Aside from two events feting Fairey, none of his art will be shown at the Design District museum, even as it foots the bill for the outdoor murals.

“We’re doing this project to go beyond our walls, our building,” says Doroshenko, who came to Dallas Contemporary 14 months ago and worked with Fairey on a project in the United Kingdom in 2006.

Doroshenko cites Fairey as one of several artists he hopes to bring to Dallas “who work in nontraditional or outdoor kinds of ways, so that you don’t have to travel to Toulouse or Tunisia to see their work. It’s here, in the city, where it will reach millions of people as they drive by on the freeway or on their way to work.” Fairey loves having an outdoor canvas, Doroshenko says, rather than having to confine his work to a museum. Fairey, like Doroshenko, revels in the notion of “adding art to a person’s everyday repertoire.”

Doroshenko calls the project “giving back to the community and on a grand scale.” He says he picked Fairey not just because he knows him but also because “all the street artists that work in Dallas or Texas are influenced by him.” Even city officials and private landlords have come to appreciate what Doroshenko calls Fairey’s “art intervention” in their communities.
This turn of events reminds me of a Grits headline from 2010: "Yesterday's graffiti is today's art and tomorrow's economic growth." Fairey's illegal tagging hobby has transformed him into an internationally known artist whose talents are so well recognized that he's now being paid (in Texas, no less) to do projects for which he previously would have been prosecuted.

So in Corpus Christi, prosecutors hope to "send a message" by prosecuting the one out of a thousand or so offenses where taggers are caught, while in Dallas they're sending a message with 150' wide murals that graffiti can be real art and that some graff writers must be viewed as true artists, worthy of the admiration of their peers.

Which "message" do you suppose will influence taggers more?

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...


Great posting GFB. It gives a snapshop of how far out of touch prosecutor's and legislature can be with "effective" criminal justice. So far out it would take light years to bring them back into the galaxy. If Texas really wants to impact crime, the lege and the public are going to have to confront and hold prosecutor offices accountable to some type of performance standards. Right now there is no such thing as a report card for prosecutor offices and they get to grade themselves on their performance. Every other entity in the criminal justice system has been subjected to scrutiny regarding "loading the prisons" with low risk offenders. Prosecutoral portion of the system continues to fly under the radar in terms of how much "they" contribute to bad criminal justice practices.

Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney said...

A fun read, and an awesome take on the issue. Instead of prosecuting them, (which never happens most of the time anyway) I prefer the strategy in Dallas that actually uses the talents of these guys. It's kinda similar to the "If you can't beat them, join them." adage right?

Anonymous said...

They're just changing America so we will never recognize it. All smeared up, tagged up and trashed, it will never be same again. At least we know what gang controls what part of each city.

Miscellaneous Lawyer said...

I am a huge fan of alternative methods of preventing crime. The obvious method is always greater enforcement, ($$) and the next one always seems to be 'increase the penalty.'

I have appeared several times for defendants who have pleaded to alternative charges, and made submissions to the effect that "The minimum sentence still provides sufficient general deterrance." Usually, magistrates have agreed, because as a jurisprudential idea, general deterrance seems almost dead.

Anonymous said...

Graffiti and other forms of vandalism serves to break the will of the people. Surrounded by all that evidence of criminal dominance, the public eventually gives up. Look at what happens to people who live in gang infested neighborhoods. They don't complain or talk no matter how vicious life gets.

With graffiti, everybody becomes intimidated and becomes compliant. Those progressive cheerleaders for this trend speed up the societal deterioration.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Right, it's graff writers responsible for society's "deterioration" and "changing America," not corrupt elites, a rigged financial system, wars of choice, mass incarceration, etc.. All that would be fine, I suppose, if it weren't for those damn kids and their spray paint.

Not that the graff grousers will ever believe it, but in Corpus police have said most of the graff isn't from criminal street gangs but from 2-3 dozen competing tagging "crews" who do not run other criminal operations. Tagging, not gangbanging, is their most serious crime, which is why statewide you mostly see misdemeanor charges and probation - the gang graff stereotype doesn't actually apply in the majority of tagging incidents. Makes a good sound bite, though.

9:25, you're right that prosecutorial misconduct is sort of the last frontier on these questions. Good observation.

Anonymous said...

Doing their thing is expensive for all of us.

Maybe these 2-3 dozen competing tagging "crews" in Corpus (and elsewhere) can find something better to do. Forget about all the physical damage they cause, why do they think they have the right to tie up police, court, and probation resources? This just adds to the amount of financial damage they cause us.

We taxpayer are forced, against our will, to pay for all this. Not everybody wants to throw away scarce tax resources so a few can vandalize to their little hearts content.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Maybe they can find something else to do, 2:47. In fact, maybe helping youth do that would reduce graffiti more than arresting one person for every thousand-plus tags that go up!

RSO wife said...

I believe that most of the people we elect have tunnel vision. They think there is only one way to do something and it's their way.

The area of Houston where I live has had the "tagging" thing going in spurts for about 15 years. When it got to be a real problem, a group of us thought that it would be good to develop a Teen Center. It would have a place where kids could come, do homework, play games, socialize, work on art projects, etc. There would be no alcohol or drugs allowed and it would be run by the teens, for the teens with adult guidance. It would have been funded solely by the business owners in the area. It would not have cost the taxpayers anything but some time and effort to volunteer.

We found an empty grocery store that would have been ideal for the center and the property owner was willing to let us use it for very little money. We spent several years trying to get the local powers that be to agree to allow it. After beating our heads against the wall we finally gave up. The "tagging" still goes in waves and it's still a shame to see that much talent being wasted.