Tough New Graffiti Laws Miss Point

The NSW Attorney General, Mr Greg Smith, SC has announced ‘tough’ new laws tackling graffiti particularly among juvenile offenders.

The Government’s Media Release can be found below:$file/220812_graffiti_law.pdf

In summary, the proposed new laws will require juvenile graffiti vandals to appear before the Court for a graffiti offence rather than receive a Police Caution.

The new laws will also give the Court the power to:

* extend the time graffiti offenders spend on learner or provisional licences,

* limit the number of demerit points they can accrue over a specific period before their licence is suspended,
* require the cleaning up of graffiti as a condition of any court imposed Community Service Order.

The rationale for the proposed changes is quoted in the following passage extracted from the Attorney General’s media release:

“It sends young offenders a very clear message – if you go out to vandalise public or private property you will face the consequences and that can now include the time you spend on a learner or provisional driver’s licence”.

The above statement made by the NSW Attorney General, and indeed the proposed amendments largely miss the point. After all, what is the point of punishing anyone, let alone a juvenile with either a restriction of the number of demerit points which may be accrued over a specific period or extend the time graffiti offenders spend on learner or provisional licences? It misses the point of sentencing and in any event, how about we use the laws we already have?

There is no doubt that graffiti is a prevalent issue in the community, costing the community millions of dollars each year to clean up. It also arguably contributes to what is called in criminological terms, a ‘broken windows’ thesis in that its presence has an effect of creating an atmosphere of urban disorder and that in turn, has an effect on further criminal activity and anti-social behaviour.

Whilst the new laws can on one hand be applauded for requiring the clean up of graffiti to be a condition of any Court imposed Community Service Order, they largely miss the point when it comes to directing punishment at, or imposing conditions upon one’s ability to obtain or maintain their driver’s licence.

The mandatory clean up of graffiti should be endorsed as part of any sentencing option as it promotes restitution and arguably guidance to teach juveniles that graffiti is a significant social issue which is then left to others to clean and remove at the expense of the community at large. Imposing restrictions, albeit it discretional or otherwise, on a driver’s licence (bearing in mind not all children will possess a learner’s or provisional licence) does not give a juvenile guidance as to their conduct, but instead punishes them (and in some cases their parents in respect of increasing the length of time they are required to hold a learner’s permit) in a manner completely different.

There are laws in place for traffic violations in respect of which restrictions and disqualifications, suspensions or cancellations of licences can result. The punishment is tailored to fit the offence.

Instead of passing these new laws, the NSW Government should have focused on what punishments are already available to the Courts and actually used those. Sentencing options in available in the Children’s Court in practical terms for an offence of this type primarily involve cautions, good behaviour bonds, referrals to Youth Justice Conferencing and in some cases a Community Service Order. A requirement that the graffiti be cleaned up can be easily structured into either of the above sentences without the need to impose punishment usually reserved for traffic law infringements.

Like the old saying goes, the punishment must fit the crime.

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