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Taggers spray, parents pay

With graffiti vandalism on the rise, L.A. County officials seek ways to hold the offenders' guardians more accountable.

September 29, 2007|Andrew Blankstein and Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writers

Frustrated by the rising toll of graffiti, Los Angeles officials are vowing a new campaign to make the parents of teenage taggers more accountable for the vandalism.

Sheriff Lee Baca said Friday that he wants to implement two programs to address the rising level of tagging.

The first would require parents of teenagers arrested for tagging to talk to deputies at the jail about the consequences of graffiti. He said such meetings would result in a "higher level of shame" for parents, who either allow their children to tag or can't control them.

The second would establish a hotline for parents to call if they suspect their children are tagging.

At the same time, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina has proposed creating a special "graffiti administrative hearing panel" to more swiftly deal with vandalism cases that would otherwise be drawn out in the court system.

The panel would deal exclusively with graffiti vandalism, establishing fines for parents whose children repeatedly tag and billing them for cleanup costs. The panel would deal with civil penalties only; taggers could still face criminal cases in Superior Court.

Punishments determined by the civil panel could be on top of or commensurate with the criminal court depending on the circumstances of the case.

"I've never met a gang banger or tagger that's homeless. They all live somewhere and with someone," Baca said, who supports the graffiti panel idea. "The parents are not being held accountable."

The moves come as the California Department of Transportation and county officials report major increases in tagging this year. Caltrans has painted over several iconic murals on freeway walls because they were repeatedly hit.

And two women -- one in Pico Rivera and one in Victorville -- were fatally shot after confronting taggers.

Caltrans last year spent about $5 million on graffiti removal in Los Angeles and Ventura counties alone.

"Caltrans does not have a budget for graffiti, so this money is taken from our maintenance funding, which could be much better spent on other maintenance," Caltrans spokeswoman Jeanne Bonfilio said. "Caltrans workers put their lives on the line every day removing graffiti."

Reported graffiti incidents in areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department rose from 2,083 in 2002 to 4,274 in 2006 -- a record likely to be broken this year. Countywide, officials spent up to $30 million on graffiti removal and tagging suppression efforts in 2006.

Artist Judy Baca, founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, said that in recent months, public murals have been hit particularly hard. "We're seeing a level of destruction that we've never seen," Baca said.

One of her own murals, "Hitting the Wall" on the 110 Freeway downtown, was nearly destroyed by taggers over the last two years.

Baca, who is not related to the sheriff, said the mural had gone about 20 years without being tagged. Her mural, which was restored after the vandalism, is among dozens recently defaced, she said.

Other murals hit hard by taggers included "L.A. Freeway Kids" on the 101 Freeway downtown, which was painted over by Caltrans after it was severely defaced by taggers and never restored.

Punishments for taggers can vary significantly but are usually proportionate to clean-up costs, prosecutors said.

Vandals who cause less than $400 damage can face fines of up to $1,000 for a first-time conviction. With a prior criminal conviction, the fine can rise to $5,000. Damage above $400 can result in a felony prosecution with a fine of up to $10,000. Above $10,000 in damage, defendants could face a $50,000 penalty.

But some question the effectiveness of adding another layer of judicial review for taggers and their parents.

Assistant Dist. Atty. Jacquelyn Lacey said one of the challenges for the justice system and the community would be deciding what takes priority when it comes to punishing taggers.

"Most of the people we see in the court system don't have a significant amount of money," Lacey said.

Another big hurdle will be deciding how that system would work with the criminal and civil courts.

"Would an admission to the administrative panel be admissible in the criminal proceeding?" Lacey said. "Would a police officer involved in the graffiti case have to testify before the panel? These are all issues that have to be considered."

Sheriff Baca said that he supports efforts to hold parents accountable but also sympathizes with those who have incorrigible children.

"The key is how do we help parents manage an adolescent who is out of control?" Baca said. "We're saying, 'Since your kid already committed a crime, why not work with police and the courts?' "

Beyond the court system, however, some experts believe that the city needs to provide spaces for youths to be productive, instead of only penalizing for tagging.

"Suppression is in a sense the perfect challenge for the adolescent macho male -- 'Tell me it'll kill me and I'll do it,' " said Judy Baca. "How you turn them around has to be a multiple-leveled approach, more than just punishment."

She suggested continuing to fund public spaces where tagging and spray painting are legal.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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