Sunday, April 5, 2009

The sky is falling

A proposal to improve the criminal justice system is pending in the Minnesota legislature. It would reduce panalties for some crimes. Mostly, it's an attempt to save costs and to reduce the numbers of people held in jail or supervised by probation staff. For example, some offenses which are currently charged as a misdemeanor crime would be reduced to a petty misdemeanor, which is not a crime. The penalty would be a fine, much like a parking ticket.

City Hall is alarmed. Neighborhoods, and anyone who will listen, are told that "The Mayor and City Council members are very concerned about the impact of this proposal." They argue that, because the bill changes some mandatory minimums for repeat offenders, neighborhood should fear for their safety.

Truth is, some "crimes" should be charged as an petty misdemeanor. Graffiti is a good example.

The City Attorney told the Mayor and Council recently, "We know that the number of cases presented to our Office ... are just a very small percentage of the total number of incidents of graffiti." In plain language, it's an admission that prosecutions for graffiti offenses are rare. The question is, why?

The answer is simple, obvious and expensive. The City Attorney insists that ALL graffiti offenses must be charged as a crime. Such a policy is not pre- ordained by the U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, that policy is approved by the Mayor and Council. It's a costly policy, accomplishing nothing.

In 2006, the Minnesota Daily reported, "Graffiti is a growing problem in Minneapolis, according to Sgt. Donna Olson, a graffiti investigator with the Minneapolis Police Department, who said the city sees more than 175,000 new tags, or graffiti markings, every year." Later that year, the Star Tribune reported, "The cleanup costs the city and its property owners $2.5 million annually." Costs increase annually, yet the policy prevails. Why?

All crimes threaten incarceration. Unfortunately, when incarceration is threatened (i.e., loss of liberty), the U.S. Constitution requires an eye witness to convict. That makes graffiti a game of Hide-n-Seek for which the Office of City Attorney is ill equipped.

A better solution is to charge SOME graffiti offenses as a petty misdemeanor. That removes the threat of incarceration. A police investigator who is not an eye witness may then present "credible testimony" to identify in an informal hearing who is responsible for the graffiti. Investigative police officers have access to search warrants and snitch money. They would use the same tools that have enabled courts to convict criminals of all flavors since the founding of the democracy.

Senator Linda Berglin introduced a bill to amend Minnesota's graffiti statute. It would allow SOME graffiti offenses to be charged as a petty misdemeanor. The premise underlying Senator Berglin's graffiti bill is approved by both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The City Attorney opposes Senator Berglin's graffiti bill. Opposition ensures that the bill will receive no public hearing. What was the reason given to the Mayor and Council? "Probation supervision is a valuable tool in that it enables monitoring of the terms of a criminal sentence, and it is not available for petty offenders."

That sounds like a full-employment gambit for lawyers. Worse, it proves that the graffiti menace in Minneapolis is self-inflicted -- by the very ones who claim to be "very concerned about the impact of this proposal."

The Graffiti Task Force
of the Lyndale neighborhood
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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