Night Owls by Jenn Bennett
Jenn Bennett is an American author of novels for both teenagers and adults. One of her award-winning books, Night Owls, follows the adventures of two teenage artists, Bex and Jack. Bex is a student who aspires to become a medical illustrator, which for a teenager is quite an unusual ambition, as it involves drawing real life anatomy to help doctors and healthcare professionals with patient care and education. Jack, on the other hand, is an infamous golden graffiti artist who “vandalises” the city at night. The story unfolds as they meet on a late-night bus where both of their worlds change.
This blog examines the reasons why graffiti as a form of expression can be considered vandalism and which rights would protect you if you were to get into trouble for doing it. I believe it is important that any child in a position that mirrors Jack’s is aware of their rights and understands how the law can protect them.
While this novel is set in America, the law and rights will be discussed as if they were based in Wales.
The Law on Vandalism and Anti-Social Behaviour
‘single words painted in enormous gold letters appeared on bridges and building fronts. Not semi-illegible, angry gang tangs, but beautifully executed pieces’
Jack, one of the main protagonists in the book, is an infamous graffiti street artist who is wanted for vandalism. Graffiti is anything that is written, sprayed or painted on public or private property. Jack is the child of the city’s mayor and the twin brother to his sister who is hospitalised with a complicated condition. Jack often feels overwhelmed and misunderstood which leads him to use his graffiti as a way of expressing his emotions and portraying what he is feeling or going through
For many, his art can be considered urban art, inspirational and significant due to the words he chooses to graffiti such as ‘celebrate’, ‘rise’ and ‘love’. However, others see his art as a public nuisance and a form of vandalism. Vandalism could get Jack into serious trouble, particularly when he decides to graffiti popular locations such as attraction entrances and monuments.
Vandalism is an anti-social action that involves deliberate destruction or damage to public or private property. In the case of this book, Jack predominantly vandalises and defaces public property. In Wales, graffiti is considered an act of vandalism and a crime under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. In part, to tackle vandalism , the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 was introduced to provide the police, local authorities and other local agencies with a range of flexible tools and powers that they could use in order to respond quickly and effectively to “anti-social behaviour”, which would include vandalism. For example, if Jack was caught graffitiing, this would be seen as vandalism and authorities could obtain a civil injunction against him to deter him from committing the anti-social act again.
Jack would have to follow certain rules, such as fixing the damage that he caused to someone else’s property, which can be extremely expensive, or else he could get a more severe punishment. The punishment for not following a civil injunction could be as severe as a three-month detention order for someone under 18, which would be applicable to Jack as he is only 17, or up to two years imprisonment or unlimited fine if you’re 18 or over. This means that Jack, or you could get a criminal record for graffitiing as it’s treated as committing a crime, even if the act is undertaken without malice intent like Jack, and this can have a very big impact upon the rest of your life.
What Happens if you are in Trouble? –Your Rights into Practice
‘Golden Apple Street Artist: Poet or Attention-Mongering Vandal?’
Rules and laws are in place to ensure everyone can feel safe, well-protected and respected. If you are caught graffitiing or undertaking any other anti-social or illegal act, you can get into a lot of trouble with the police and your local authority.
Once you are 10, the law says that you are old enough to understand if you have broken the law or not. This is known as the ‘age of criminal responsibility’. As Jack is under 18, this means that he could be questioned by the police, taken to a police station, and could possibly end up in court where a judge would decide what is to happen to him next.
It is important to be aware of how the law in Wales can protect you if you are ever in a situation like this. The UK Government signed The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and it has been adopted as Welsh Law under the Rights of Children and Young Persons Measure 2011. This means that Welsh ministers must now pay ‘due regard’ to the UNCRC when developing or making decisions regarding new legislation and policy.
The UNCRC rights that would apply to you in this situation are:
- Article 3 – your right to have your best interests taken into account when any authority takes any action which affects you, including the police.
- Article 40 – your right to be treated fairly by the juvenile justice system if you have been accused of breaking the law. This means that you, or any child who is suspected of committing an offence should have the right to legal help and fair treatment in a justice system that respects your rights. The Welsh government has agreed that children who break the law should be treated as ‘children first, and offenders second.’
If you do get into trouble with the police, your rights under the UNCRC will help ensure that you are treated fairly. While this does not mean that you can get away with the law that you have broken, it means that you will be treated in a way that encourages a better outcome and considers your best interests.
It is important to remember that the law also protects your civil liberties and your human rights. Despite Jack being seen as a ‘wanted vandal’, the police should always recognise his civil liberties and rights as a child; even though they suspect that he has broken the law. You can learn more about getting stopped, arrested, interviewed and charged by the police here.
Alternative Ways to Get your Voice Heard
Just like Jack, you might want to express yourself through art. There are, however, several ways in which children can do so legally. Every child has the right to express their feelings on all matters affecting them whilst having their views taken seriously. You can learn more about these rights here.
Issues at home, in school and in the community can be overwhelming. You have the right to be listened to and the right to take part in decision making when problems arise within public organisations such as your school. This is your Article 12 right.
You might also want to make a social, political or personal statement. Getting your voice heard in the decisions that affect your daily life is also very important. Due to Wales now being a devolved nation, more decisions about life in Wales can be made at a national level. You can get your voice heard through your local council, your local Member of Parliament (MP) or Member of the Senedd (the Welsh parliament) (MS), or perhaps most excitingly, through the Welsh Youth Parliament. The Welsh Youth Parliament is a body created to empower young people to make decisions and to provide them with a voice in Welsh politics. You can learn more about the Welsh Youth Parliament here.
Other Ways to Read about the Law and your Rights
- What to do if you break rules.
- What to do if you’re in trouble.
- How does the law affect you on the street?
- What happens if you are approached by the police?
- How to get your voice heard.
It is very important to understand and know your rights, as well as how the law protects you in Wales. You can read more about how the law affects you on the Children’s Legal Centre Wales’ website here or you can read more blogs like this from the ‘Reading my Rights’ project. If you have a specific question about the law, please do use our contact form to get in touch.
About the Author
I’m Megan Salter and I am currently a first-year student studying Politics and International Relations at Swansea University. I have thoroughly enjoyed combining my love of reading and my understanding of the importance of children knowing the law and acknowledging their rights to produce this piece. As I don’t yet know what I would like to do after I finish my degree, I thoroughly enjoy volunteering for such impactful projects like this.