The ordinance, introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last month, is the latest plan out of City Hall to get tough on graffiti, which aldermen decry as a scourge that's getting worse, though city records show reports of it have fluctuated for years.
The ordinance would increase the fines for those convicted of graffiti from $750 to a range between $1,500 and $2,500. The fine would be $1,000 for the guardians of minors busted for it. Judges would also have the option of imposing additional community service time or a stint in jail.
The mayor's office wouldn't say at this time exactly what had prompted the new ordinance. "While requests for graffiti removal have increased in recent years, the fines for graffiti have not been increased for nearly a decade," said a written statement from the mayor's office. "Increasing these fines will be a deterrent to future acts of vandalism and will also complement our robust graffiti removal program."
But it's not clear that the current law is being enforced. Alderman Michael Zalewski (23rd Ward), who's cosponsoring the ordinance, said fines are so rarely collected that the notion of generating money from enforcement is "fictional."
Officials with the city's finance department said they could not immediately provide figures showing how many graffiti fines have been paid.
Still, aldermen expressed support for the new measure at a meeting of the Committee on Public Safety last week. Zalewski, who sponsored a similar proposal in 2012 that didn't go anywhere, described illegal graffiti as one of the most critical issues facing his southwest-side ward.
"We all know that the media attention has been on the shootings, and they should be, but I believe, at least in my community, that this is the second biggest problem that we have," Zalewski said. "Helen Keller can see that graffiti is a cancer on the city, in my opinion."
Chicago Police Commander William Dunn told aldermen that police make an average of about 3,000 arrests a year for criminal damage and 350 for criminal defacement. Additionally, the city issued 547 tickets for graffiti last year.
But Dunn admitted that vandalism is a difficult crime to prevent, since perpetrators can act quickly without being seen. He also said that the portion of graffiti that's gang related varies across different areas of the city, though residents almost always perceive tagging as a sign of gang activity.
Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, says that only about 25 percent of graffiti is thought to be gang related, with the rest typically done by college-age students or self-described public artists.
Poppe says the department's graffiti removal program has received a boost in funds for additional cleaning crews. Over the past five years the number and cost of graffiti cleanups have fluctuated, averaging more than 136,000 cleanups and $4.7 million annually between 2010 and 2013, she said. The city is on pace to have fewer cleanups this year than last.
"The Graffiti Removal Program's top priority is to remove all graffiti quickly as one of the best deterrents against graffiti is rapid removal," Poppe wrote in an e-mail.
Some aldermen noted during the hearing that hiring more police officers would be the ideal approach to preventing graffiti, as well as other crimes.
And Alderman Nick Sposato (36th) asked whether the increased fines could be financially crippling to the families of low-income juveniles that are busted. An official with the law department conceded that it could be an issue, but no amendments were made to the ordinance.
It passed the committee unanimously and is scheduled to go before the full council on Wednesday, which usually means it has plenty of votes to pass.