CITY HALL — A City Council committee Thursday approved a dramatic increase in graffiti fines as aldermen called for a crackdown on such defacements.
"Helen Keller can see that graffiti is a cancer on the city," said Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd). "The gangs are taking over."
Zalewski called it "the second-biggest problem that we have" after shootings. He praised the increased fines, saying they'd "send a message that this is not a laughing matter."
An ordinance amendment that would raise the fines for vandalism from $750 to a range of $1,500 to $2,500 passed the Committee on Public Safety without opposition Thursday. It heads to the full City Council on Wednesday.
"The city needs a strong deterrent against graffiti," said Debbie DeLopez, head of the Graffiti Removal Program with the Department of Streets and Sanitation.
According DeLopez, the city will spend $4.9 million on graffiti removal this year, up $1 million from past years. That will double the number of chemical vans removing graffiti from limestone and other stone buildings to four, and add three more graffiti-removal crews.
According to Police Cmdr. William Dunn, of the Near North District, the city makes 3,000 arrests a year for damage to property, but only 350 for criminal defacement, the state charge for graffiti, and 42 last year on city charges, although the department did issue 547 graffiti citations.
"It's a difficult crime to catch," Dunn said, "because it happens very quickly. It only takes a few seconds."
"Rarely do we catch these people," said Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th), who called for more police.
"The police cannot do this alone," said Ald. James Balcer (11th), who called for citizens to report any incidents they observe.
Aldermen said gang graffiti and nongang related tagging were equal problems, although to varying extents in areas across the city. Dunn added that gang graffiti was more likely to lead to street violence, making its removal a necessity.
Thomas Baliga, president of the Archer Heights Civic Association, called graffiti "a scourge" on the Southwest Side, adding that it lowered property values and "is driving the middle class out of the city." He said businesses were especially hard-pressed to replace storefront windows that have been etched.
"Whether gang graffiti or tagging, it is a problem," Baliga said. He added that the Archer Heights association also has graffiti patrols, saying, "We are passionate about this in our area."
The beginning fine for parents or legal guardians of minors charged for graffiti will remain at $250, but the maximum will rise from $750 to $1,000. In all cases, offenders will also be responsible for repair costs.
Aldermen were also concerned about the fine serving as a hardship for otherwise innocent families. "How are we gonna collect?" Sposato said.
Jeffrey Levine, of the Law Department, said community service was "an alternative" in some cases.
"Short of throwing them in jail, which is what they really deserve, there's not a lot you can do to them," Dunn said. "Community service would be good — anything to act as a deterrent."
Baliga called for "substantial community service or cleaning service" as a punishment, and suggested putting offenders in "hot pink" uniforms.
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