It is rare that police are able to catch graffiti vandals. By the time their "work" is discovered, the vandals are usually long gone.

So, when police are successful, they and the courts should make use of the multiple opportunities that success provides: An opportunity not just to punish the offenders, but to teach a lesson, to repair the damage and to send a message.

That is the case in Haverhill, where police said they caught five male teens last Saturday afternoon in the act of defacing the inside of the building at 104 Essex Street. Four juveniles and one 17-year-old were arrested and charged with trespassing and tagging.

The police deserve credit for their quick response. And obviously, the teens are presumed innocent until their cases are adjudicated. But if they are convicted, it would be a travesty of justice and an invitation to more vandalism if they are let off with no more than a warning and a few hours of "community service."

Graffiti is not an expression of artistic freedom. It is a crime, and ought to be treated as such.

Those who are convicted should have to clean up their own mess, no matter how long it takes. That is not cruel and unusual — it is a logical consequence for a choice they made. This should teach them something about the effort it takes for others to clean up after them.

They should be required to pay significant fines. If they are not willing to respect the property of others, they should suffer some financial pain for it.

Not only would this restore the property to its original condition and make vandals think much more carefully about committing more crimes, it would also put others on notice that they can indeed be caught, and if they are, the consequences will be severe.

Anything less will also send a message — the wrong message, that you can damage the property of others with impunity. If you get caught, you just put on a suit, act like you're so terribly sorry, have your parents tell the judge what a good kid you are, and you'll get a slap on the wrist.

That is not the message Haverhill wants to send. It will just make a bad problem worse.

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