I recently wrote on graffiti vandalism in Los Angeles and how restorative justice could be applied to this problem. What I didn't know at the time was that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill here in California related to this problem in 2008. That bill, authored by Assemblyman Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles), required that convicted graffiti offenders clean up the mess they created and for one year keep it clean. This reflects restorative justice in that the punishment fits the crime. The governor was right.
More than 600,000 incidents of graffiti were reported throughout the Los Angeles region in 2007. That's 40,000 more reports than the previous year. The cost of this problem to cities and counties is enormous. This law allows the offenders to take personal responsibility for their crimes. The law is mandatory, versus discretionary, for the court to sanction this kind of sentence but in this case it makes sense. Could the law have gone further? I think so. Victim offender meetings between property owners or public officials would be a good thing.
This is not always practical, but when possible it would be wise to put a face to a crime (i.e. a business owner whose store has been vandalized repeatedly). The law requires that the offender, or his guardian or parents, keep the area graffiti free for one year. That's good. But under a system based on restorative justice often a victim and offender would sit down and agree to a sort of "contract" or an agreement about the future intentions of the offender. It would also detail how the offender would make things right. The victim, let's say the business owner, would declare what he thought was a reasonable agreement between himself and the offender. Restorative justice research shows that if that contract is between the victim and the offender the likelihood of the offender doing the right thing in the future is much higher. That leads to more satisfied victims and more often fewer repeat offenders.
I have strong views about this because in the 1990s when I directed Justice Fellowship in California, a criminal justice reform group of Prison Fellowship Ministries, we sponsored a bill just like this one carried by Assemblyman Davis. We targeted nonviolent juvenile offenders and the problem of this type of vandalism. At that time California legislators were competing with each other to prove who could author the better "Three-Strikes and You're Out" bill. My legislative author heard Justice Fellowship was on record opposing the Three Strikes legislation since we believed it was bad policy and all the bills, including the state ballot initiative, were poorly drafted. Our author dropped our graffiti legislation at the end of the legislative session to "punish" us for our principled stance on the subject of Three Strikes. That's sometimes how it goes. A sad reflection of our legislative process whether it happens in California or anywhere else. But this governor was right to sign his bill in 2008. It's needed. The cost of graffiti is huge and the impact on communities is clear. No one feels safe, or is safe, in a community when its walls and buildings are covered in graffiti which is often due to gang activity.
One point mentioned in the Los Angeles Times article is that opposition to the legislation was raised by gang experts and others including a nonprofit that does good work as it attempts to get juveniles out of gangs in Southern California. Their opposition was based on concerns for the safety of some of the offenders guilty of this type of vandalism. It's a tough call. Any offender doing community service needs to be protected when he/she is doing that service. But the governor was right. This was a bill that will help connect the offense with the impact the crime has. Maybe if local entities, such as local law enforcement, had more resources they could properly oversee offenders as they do these community service acts. But as we know this year local law enforcement has been hit hard by budget cuts.
This is one big vicious circle. Whether the governor knew it or not, in 2008 he signed a bill reflecting restorative justice principles.