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COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT CAN ARREST GRAFFITI VANDALISM.

Byline: Adam B. Schiff

OVER the last several years, through a process of trial and error, which has often seemed more like error and error, we have come to learn a great deal about the nature of public safety and the steps we must take to protect our communities.

We have moved from a narrow focus on deterrence the role of the community's involvement in the suppression of crime.

The quality of life in a community is a key indicator of whether a prevalence of graffiti, garbage in the streets, small-time drug peddling, prostitution, public drinking and other factors have a predictable correlation to more serious criminal behavior. In the last half decade, those communities which have been successful in improving the outward quality of life by removing the trappings of criminal conduct or blight have been rewarded by lower rates of crime and violence.

In light of this experience, measures designed to improve the quality of life in our communities take on even greater significance. Unfortunately, the fight to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods has suffered a recent setback. In particular, the war on graffiti vandalism incurred a grave loss, first in the courts, then in the state Legislature.

Under current law, graffiti vandalism where the damage does not exceed $5,000 is a misdemeanor, and where it does exceed $5,000 may be a misdemeanor or a felony (also know as a ``wobbler''). Until recently, if a graffiti vandal damaged 100 buildings and caused $1,000 worth of damage to each building, prosecutors could aggregate the damage to charge one felony rather than 100 misdemeanors. This permitted prosecutors to deter graffiti through threat of a felony prosecution, and, more importantly, to impose more stringent terms of supervision following a conviction (including substantial cleanup responsibilities).

Several months ago, however, the California Court of Appeal ruled that without explicit statutory authorization, prosecutors could not aggregate graffiti vandalism for the purpose of turning 100 misdemeanors into one felony. This ruling not only precluded the aggregation of graffiti vandalism in the future, but threatened to defeat dozens of pending graffiti prosecutions. At the urging of local law enforcement, the business community, homeowner groups and anti-graffiti activists, I drafted an urgency measure, SB 1229, to restore the prosecution's ability to try these repeat vandals as felons.

Regrettably, SB 1229 was defeated. Opponents feared that if prosecutors were once again permitted to aggregate graffiti vandalism, for the purpose of a felony prosecution, then under the ``three strikes, you're out'' law some graffiti vandal might be ``struck out'' for 25 years to life for graffiti vandalism.

While I understand the concern raised by opponents of the bill, I do not believe that concern was warranted with respect to SB 1229. First, there is no evidence that any graffiti vandal has ever been struck out under ``three strikes.'' Second, those who have been convicted of two prior serious or violent offenses under ``three strikes'' are not likely to cap off their criminal career by spraying graffiti - vandalism is much more commonly the first step on the road to criminality than the destination. And third, under a California Supreme Court decision, both the judge and the prosecutor have the discretion to dismiss a prior strike in the interest of justice, which would almost certainly be the case if graffiti vandalism were ever a defendant's third strike.

Communities now have one less tool to fight degradation in the quality of life than they had yesterday. We will have to redouble our efforts to provide kids with meaningful alternatives to gangs and graffiti - a cause we should be undertaking regardless of the success or failure of SB 1229. And we will have to mobilize our businesses, homeowners, renters, neighbors and friends to work even harder to remove the pall of graffiti vandalism from our midst.

Although the law on graffiti vandalism may be erased from the law books, the problems remains. Given the close connection between the tolerance of blight and lesser criminality, to the encouragement of violence and much greater criminality, the struggle against this blight must go on unabated.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 27, 1997
Words:685
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