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Putting a face to a crime

September 24, 2009

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.


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