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How Colorado Plans to Fight A Ubiquitous Urban Eyesore

Law would suspend driver's licenses of graffiti 'artists'

In cities across America, graffiti shows up on bridges, buildings, fences, and bus stops. It is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous form of urban blight.

Efforts to stem graffiti - such as laws banning the sale of spray paint to minors - have met with little success.

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But now in Colorado, lawmakers are upping the ante to combat this prevalent eyesore: They want to revoke the driver's licenses of those caught defacing property with graffiti.

The idea is to hit graffiti vandals - who are usually in their mid-teens - with consequences that hurt. The proposal reflects communities' growing intolerance of so-called nuisance crimes and an increasing sentiment that addressing minor offenses with swift force will reduce the incidence of serious crimes.

Police say that typical punishments for graffiti writing, like being ordered to pay restitution or perform community service, have little effect on juveniles.

"They think community service is a joke, but this is something they might take seriously," says Denver police Sgt. Bill Mitchell. Particularly in a city where urban sprawl spills into five counties, "a driver's license is a big thing to a teenager," he says.

Three months without wheels

Under the proposed law, youths caught writing graffiti would forfeit their licenses for three months, or, if unlicensed, would face a delay of three months before they could obtain a driver's license. For repeat offenders, the stakes would rise even higher - no driving for six months with each successive offense.

The Colorado measure has already passed both houses of the state legislature with little opposition. If signed by Gov. Roy Romer, the proposal would become the state's first law to tie driver's license revocation to juvenile offenses.

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Other states - including Arizona, California, and Indiana - currently have laws to deny or revoke licenses for juvenile offenses ranging from drug possession to vandalism. And some states have used the threat of driver's license denial to keep kids from dropping out of school. Last year President Clinton even proposed expanding the trend to include drug tests for minors before they are licensed to drive.

Disrespect for property

The rationale behind these and other efforts to stop nuisance crimes can be traced to criminologist George Kelling, who says cracking down on offenses like loitering and turnstile-jumping may put roadblocks in the path of escalating crime.

"Graffiti is a symptom of a lack of respect for people and property," says state Rep. Suzanne Williams, the Aurora, Colo., Republican who sponsored the Colorado measure. "It is a visual [image] that says 'I don't care about this community,' and that message continues and grows."

And "tagging" - essentially marking territory with graffiti - may be the first stop on a crime career that progresses to burglary and robbery, adds Sergeant Mitchell.

Of course, some would argue that graffiti is art - a form of social expression or free speech. Others disagree. "I don't see any art to graffiti," says Mitchell.

In any discussion of graffiti, there is the sizable community expense to consider: Denver spent $2.5 million last year alone to clean up defaced buildings and property. "This may be just an adolescent prank, but [it's] a very costly prank," says Representative Williams.

Experts, however, question whether the threat of losing driving privileges can really reduce juvenile crime.

"But if nothing else, what we might be looking at is ... a big reduction in traffic congestion," jokes Jessica Pierson, director of the Center for Policy Research in Denver.

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