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Editorial: Get creative punishing taggers

Patrons were assaulted this Tinley Park restaurant May 19.  |  
Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

Patrons were assaulted at this Tinley Park restaurant on May 19. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 21, 2012 6:20AM

There’s only one sure-fire way to get rid of graffiti in Chicago.

Blast it off.

The City Council should keep this in mind as it begins an important, but potentially frustrating, discussion about what to do about Chicago’s gang graffiti problem.

The Sun-Times reported Tuesday that one particularly fed-up alderman, Michael Zalewski, whose ward covers parts of the Southwest Side, intends to propose a crackdown on taggers.

Zalewski wants to increase the fines for adults, from $750 to $2,000, and to mandate either a short jail term (3 to 30 days) or up to 2,500 hours of community service. Juveniles under 17 would face lesser penalties, but fines for their guardians would double. Most taggers now can get off with just a fine, and perhaps community service or jail.

We like the impulse. We count graffiti, particularly gang graffiti, as among the most destructive quality-of-life crimes. A neighborhood, even a single street, marked with graffiti sends the message that the bad guys are in charge.

Removal is the most effective remedy. But the city, facing financial pressures, slashed spending on removal this year, dropping from 60 to 43 employees. The Emanuel administration says a recent shift to a grid system for graffiti removal has boosted productivity by 16 percent. But it still takes seven days to respond to a removal request, a day longer than last year.

Will the threat of jail and steep fines prevent taggers from taking up the spray can? It’s probably worth trying but Zalewski couldn’t cite research to show it works, saying that’s something to explore at a hearing on his proposed ordinance. It’s also important to note the small number of graffiti-related arrests the city actually makes. In 2011, there were 856 arrests. That compares to 65,000 graffiti removal requests for just the first half of 2011.

If the city goes down this path, we’d also like to connect the punishment to the crime — making taggers clean up the communities they’ve damaged with graffiti. A promise by police and the city to make anti-graffiti work a top priority is also crucial.

Zalewski is right to highlight Chicago’s ugly graffiti problem, but laws alone will not scrub our streets.

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