Washington lawmakers discuss new bill that would increase consequences for graffiti, tagging

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People don’t have to look far to see graffiti and tagging throughout western Washington. The spray paint can be seen plastered on public and private buildings, signs, buses, park benches and much more. 

While some people believe it’s art, others believe it’s vandalism and time to get a handle on the trend.

“I think that it’s a beautiful form of art and we should treat it just like we treat any other artwork,” said Jones in downtown Olympia. “It’s all about getting a voice out there with visuals.”

“I see both expressions of art and vandalism,” said Wade Smith in downtown Olympia. “New tags every day somewhere and it does detract from and it’s harmful in cases of street signs and things like that.”

There is an obvious divide on what is considered art. When it comes to the influx of illegal graffiti and tagging on public and private properties, some state lawmakers said there is no debate.

“The problem that we see on our streets is growing and it is graffiti. It’s everywhere,” said Rep. Andrew Barkis, representing Washington’s 2nd Legislative District.

House Bill 1800 was discussed, Thursday, during the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee. Barkis is sponsoring the bill. The proposal calls for increased criminal penalties and restitution for convictions of graffiti. This includes community service hours as a court issued punishment.

“For persons who are convicted of non-violent offenses, eight hours of community restitution may be substituted for one day of confinement. The conversion is limited to 30 days. Therefore 30 days can be converted to 240 hours of community restitution,” explained committee staff member Lena Langer.

“Instead of putting somebody in jail or doing something along those lines, giving the prosecutors another tool, why not use a community service type of a program for restitution to actually go out and do that,” Barkis said during the committee meeting.

The bill claims “prosecutors are unlikely to recommend actual jail time for minor crimes.” So, the proposal calls for establishing consequences of “picking up trash in state parks, scrubbing off paint, or doing other forms of community restitution” as a reformative solution.

“The problem is, as with a lot of things, accountability and holding people to it. And putting some things out there so people think twice before they actually commit the crime or tagging or graffiti on our infrastructures, our parks, our roadways,” said Barkis.

Supporters of a new bill said usually when young people are caught illegally tagging or spraying graffiti, it’s their parents who end up paying the fine, yet their kids don’t experience the consequences. Barkis said one goal of the proposal is to deter criminal activity. Langer further explained the proposed restitution.

“A specific sum of money ordered by the court to be paid as payment of damages. Restitution may be used to compensate victims or cover certain public costs for monetary harm arising out of criminal offense,” said Langer.

Not everyone is on board with the idea of increasing consequences.

“There’s artwork everywhere here. And I think limiting that creative outlet is kind of stifling in the area,” said Ann Mora, an artist in Olympia who works with young people. “If it’s blocking signage like directions or something like that, yeah, I can see you need to take that off. If it’s not gang-related, I just don’t think that there should be any harsh consequences.”

House Bill 1800 is in the beginning stages at the state capitol. As the bill makes it’s rounds through legislation, some people say they hope solutions are discussed to legally preserve the unique art form.

“The tagging is much more extensive, and something needs to be done. It would be interesting to talk about some proactive artful outlets,” said Smith.

“I think just having a designated area is a perfect compromise,” said Mora. “I don’t want to live in an area that’s just brown buildings with nothing. I would rather be somewhere super colorful and bright.”

Further detail of House Bill 1800 is explained on the Washington State Legislature website

In a separate bill, House Bill 1989, Barkis is also proposing a graffiti abatement program. It includes a three-pronged approach using research, strategic deterrence, and collaboration for enforcement and accountability to address the influx of illegal graffiti and tagging.

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