While the city is on the right track for re-examining its tagging penalty fee scale, Oxnard officials are still not doing enough to implement community service into their graffiti abatement program, advocates for local youth said this week.

Following the City Council’s recent decision to look again at how it hands down its fines for graffiti offenses, its critics, including an arts activism group and a local attorney, say the Oxnard Graffiti Task Force should be more receptive to incorporating an alternative to expensive fees that kids charged with vandalism cannot afford.

“There does have to be some sort of sweat equity, some form of community service to be offered to our youth,” says A. Tomas Hernandez, program director for Arts for Action.

Hernandez works to rehabilitate teens convicted of painting graffiti. His group’s mission is recognizing that while the law may view taggers as merely vandals, there is artistic value in graffiti that can be used in constructive ways.
“The thing is to beautify the city they once vandalized,” he says.

Hernandez refers to a public mural painted last summer by Arts for Action kids, at the corner of Perkins and Hueneme roads, as a testament to an alternate community service the city could sanction as a substitute for hefty criminal and civil fines.

Those fines were discussed at the council’s April 20 meeting, where officials rejected a tiered penalty structure to replace its current rule of fining $1,000 per graffiti tag. The proposal, to develop a fee scale of $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second, and $500 for subsequent offenses, was turned down in favor of tabling a future discussion to implement a $1,000-per-incident fine, rather than for each individual tag. An incident is a collection of numerous tags that may be attributed to one person or a group of people.

Council members were in accord that reducing the fees could somehow give the wrong impression, that Oxnard is lowering its guard on stopping graffiti. What Hernandez and others take officials to task for, however, is their failure to give kids a chance to pay for a graffiti offense through artistic expression, possibly a better deterrent to crime than monetary fines.

It’s sparked a debate on the validity of graffiti as true art.

“The issue’s pretty heavy and deep, and I really feel they’re detracting from the topic, saying all graffiti is wrong. It can be close to culturally insensitive,” Hernandez says. “As an art form, it’s in galleries and it exists, so to say graffiti is not an art form is a short-sighted comment.”

Councilman Dean Maulhardt relayed his perspective at the April 20 meeting.

“When you do it on someone else’s building, it is not art. It is vandalism. It is destroying property. I cannot see making any allowances or excuses for the word ‘art’ on this subject …. It is pure and simple vandalism,” Maulhardt said.

He later added, “What bothers me most about this is that this is a fine (per tag) that can be absolutely avoided. Don’t do it.”

Though there were only seven total graffiti incidents last year in Oxnard, there were 836 individual civil citations issued, says Sgt. Terry Burr of the Oxnard Police Department. That means there was $836,000 levied in fines. This year, 11 incidents have been recorded so far, as of late April, 26 citations and $26,000 in fines.

Even if the council reduces the $1,000 price tag to a per-incident system, it’s still far too cost-prohibitive for any teenager — or his or her family — to afford, according to attorney Barbara Macri-Ortiz.

“They see it as so expensive, it’s ridiculous,” Macri-Ortiz says. “Rather than the parents looking at the kids’ behavior, they’re upset at the city because it’s so ridiculous.”

Macri-Ortiz says that the penalty doesn’t fit the crime. Spraying graffiti on a wall carries a $1,000 per tag fine, she said, compared to a $100 fee for firing a gun in Oxnard.

“We tend to want to criminalize everything and be very punitive with everything. And we forget we’re dealing with kids. We want to take a bad experience and turn it into a good experience,” she says. “But if we’ve got these insane fines, we’re not teaching them anything about our justice system.”

Hernandez opines that fines don’t teach a lesson to kids. Even in the productive environment of Arts for Action, only eight out of 14 Oxnard teens graduated from the program in 2009. Of the remaining six, three reoffended, Hernandez said: one for graffiti, one for truancy, and a third for violating terms of probation.

Hernandez and Macri-Ortiz also criticized officials for charging $1,000 civil fines to graffiti recipients responsible for cleaning up spray paint left on their property and homes through no fault of their own.

Cyndi Hookstra, the city’s Graffiti Task Force director, said that the city ordinance on graffiti civil fines was written to ensure a swift cleanup of vandalism. Graffiti, she says, must be removed within five days or a fine is issued.

But, she added, “We’ve never issued a citation for it because it’s always been removed.”

Elsewhere in Ventura County, officials in Simi Valley raised their graffiti fines in March, from $100 to $1,000 per vandalism offense. According to Dan Paranick, Simi Valley’s assistant city manager, through the end of March a total of 25 tagging suspects had been arrested by local police in just the first three months of the year, compared to 18 graffiti arrests in all of 2009.