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Tough Graffiti Sentence May Send a Message

Vandalism: Incidents in Simi Valley stop after gang member gets three years of weekly cleanup duty. Other cities seek similar penalties.

September 10, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The way authorities tell it, 18-year-old gang member Rafael Escobedo spent much of his teenage years scribbling graffiti on walls and buildings throughout Simi Valley.

In January, a business owner saw him at it again, and Escobedo was arrested. He pleaded guilty to vandalism and spent several months in jail.

While most graffiti convictions result in minor penalties, Escobedo's case was different. In addition to restitution, he was ordered to spend eight hours every weekend for the next three years cleaning up graffiti in his hometown.

"After he got out of jail and told his friends about that, graffiti in the city seemed to come to a screeching halt," said Mike Nisito, Simi Valley's graffiti-abatement coordinator. "Some people out there are now thinking twice about doing this."

Police officials in neighboring cities applaud the stiff sentence for Escobedo.

"We have 20,000 incidents a year, and it's just costing the city a fortune," Oxnard Police Assistant Chief Stan Myers said. "We're not holding these people responsible for what they are doing."

Ventura County cities and the county spend nearly $825,000 a year to clean up the scrawls of rival gangs and graffiti crews.

Oxnard tops the list, spending $450,000 a year to pay a nine-person cleanup crew that cruises the city daily looking for graffiti.

Simi Valley ranks second, spending nearly $150,000 to paint over between 800 and 1,000 markings reported each year. Ventura spends $74,000 and Thousand Oaks about $60,000.

"It's all over the place--from the nicest part of town to the lowest part," said Warren Gaston, a Ventura maintenance worker who handles that city's graffiti removal.

Port Hueneme, Camarillo and Ventura County, which handles the cleanup in the county's unincorporated areas, spend a total of about $53,000.

Santa Paula relies in part on the nonprofit Group Against Graffiti for cleanup funds. The group has placed donation cans at various businesses and holds rummage sales. From July 2001 through June, the city spent about $9,300 to remove more than 300 graffiti markings.

Nearby Fillmore has a graffiti cleanup budget of $29,000, which pays for supplies and the salary of a part-time employee. That city, according to Sheriff's Department statistics, had about 300 graffiti reports last year.

Ojai, which logged 78 incidents last year, relies solely on Group Against Graffiti to raise money for cleanup work.

Countywide, officials estimate that graffiti vandals scrawl more than 50,000 markings each year. Only a fraction of the incidents are ever prosecuted.

"The hardest thing with vandalism cases is that many of them don't result in the identification of a suspect," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Redmond.

Authorities agree that catching graffiti vandals is tough because most commit their crimes at night. Graffiti vandals also change the style and color of their scrawls to avoid detection.

"So many times it's a random act," Nisito said. "And these people are like cockroaches. Once the light goes on, they scatter. It's an ongoing battle."

According to the Ventura County district attorney's office, 333 adult misdemeanor and felony vandalism cases were prosecuted in 2001. Since the start of this year, 240 cases have been prosecuted.

The majority of incidents of vandalism, which includes throwing a rock at a window or keying a car, involve graffiti, authorities said.

But the figures do not accurately reflect the number of cases that prosecutors receive because juvenile offenders--those responsible for most of the county's graffiti--are often placed in a diversion program. They can perform community service and pay a fine in exchange for avoiding a criminal conviction.

Diversion is available to any first-time offender who commits graffiti vandalism that results in damage of less than $1,000, which most cases do, Redmond said.

In graffiti cases that are prosecuted, the most common sentence is three years of unsupervised probation, five days of community service--usually cleanup work on the freeways--and restitution.

The Juvenile Court system bills the parents of a juvenile offender. They are legally responsible for the debt if the minor child fails to repay it.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

*

Graffiti Cleanup

City -- Annual cost

Camarillo -- $27,000

Fillmore -- $29,000

Ojai -- 0*

Oxnard -- $450,000

Port Hueneme -- $17,992

Santa Paula -- $9,300*

Simi Valley -- $148,500

Thousand Oaks -- $60,000

Ventura -- $74,000

Ventura County (unincorporated areas) -- $8,100*

Total$823,892

* County and cities that rely at least in part on community donations to finance graffiti abatement.

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