Ald. Zalewski's graffiti ordinance: Collision course with Cook County?

Ald. Zalewski's graffiti ordinance: Collision course with Cook County?
Gang graffiti, Photo by Nick Moroni

Twenty-third Ward Ald. Michael Zalewski's plan to take back his community from gang-affiliated graffiti vandals could potentially put him on a collision course with Cook County's plan to reduce the number of offenders passing through its criminal justice system.

An ordinance Zalewski plans to submit to the city council Wednesday would increase fines for people caught tagging. The possible conflict with the county arises in a section of the proposal that would require all graffiti cases to be sent to Cook County's circuit courts. This would greatly increase the chance that someone picked up for tagging could wind up in jail.

But adjudicating and incarcerating even more people in an already overcrowded Cook County Jail for non-violent offenses is likely something the cash-strapped Cook County government will not be thrilled about.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is on vacation and, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on Zalewski's ordinance because she hasn't seen it.

But Preckwinkle has repeatedly sounded off about the need to shrink the county's jail population. Part of that is her fiscal prudence--about $1 billion of the county's $2.9 billion budget, or about a third, already funds its criminal justice system.

In addition, Preckwinkle wants to keep some low-level and non-violent offenders out of jail because a disproportionate number of the convicted are persons of color.

"I don't expect that we're going to have 200 or 300 people at a time who are arrested. There will be maybe one case a month," Zalewski said.

The alderman also said county representatives would be invited to testify before a city committee or the council, if the ordinance makes it there.

He also plans to have representatives from the police department and the Cook County States Attorney's Office testify and present reports on graffiti arrests and cases that he said will reveal how serious of an issue it is.

"It's really affecting people's faith in the community, at least the one I represent," he said.

Zalewski said he wanted to make clear that gang graffiti is what the ordinance targets, but there is no specific language in the legislation that speaks to the issue of gang graffiti.

Nicholas Roti, chief of the Chicago Police Department's Bureau of Organized Crime, said gang graffiti can lead to street violence. But, contrary to Zalewski's insistence that it's become a bigger problem in recent years, he downplayed the omnipresence of gang graffiti, at least citywide.

"Gang graffiti is not as prevalent as it was in the past ... but it is still a problem that can and should be paid attention to in any public violence reduction initiative," Roti said, in an email. "Gangs use graffiti to mark territory as well as to disrespect and taunt rival gangs, which can obviously lead to violence."

To try and gauge support for Zalewski's ordinance, The Chicago Reporter contacted alderman in several neighboring wards that have gang problems--22nd Ward Ald. Ricardo Munoz, 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis, and 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas--but none of them returned calls.

"The politicians, they'll use graffiti as the scapegoat, like it's the real problem, like the murder rate isn't the big problem," said Rahmaan Statik Barnes, a former graffiti artist who now only does commissioned work. "You can't relate robberies and murders to graffiti."

Statik Barnes conceded that gang graffiti is problematic, but he disagreed with the notion that locking people up would deter the offender from committing the same crime again.

"Gang-banging is part of Chicago ... how are you going to stop it by going after graffiti?" he added.

Zalewski's ordinance would also up fines from $750 to $2,000 for graffiti vandals. It would also increase the minimum and maximum fines that parents of arrestees pay from $250 to $500, and $750 to $1,000, respectively.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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    I have publicly endorsed the effort in Chicago to increase penalties for committing graffiti crimes. I did so because meaningful penalties are an essential component of any comprehensive program of graffiti reduction. The horrific cost of graffiti crimes goes well beyond the massive expense of property clean-up and restoration. Neighborhoods are hurt deeply by graffiti vandalism, lives are changed for the worse, and kids are exposed to more serious crimes. Contact me at www.DefacingAmerica.com if I've missed something.

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