Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Bigger priority on vehicle burglaries: Solving crimes or harsher punishments?

Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune reports that the proposed House and Senate budgets both would zero out funds for the Texas Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, despite exceptional, on-the-ground results since its inception in auto-theft cases, as depicted in this chart:

That said, here's the real tradeoff facing the Legislature on the Authority's funding that Grissom didn't mention: Police chiefs and many legislators - led by Reps Debbie Riddle and Vicki Truitt - want to increase the penalty for burglary of a vehicle (that's stealing items from a vehicle, not auto theft) to a state-jail felony on the first offense. If that happened, it would send around 550-800 extra inmates per year to be incarcerated in Texas state jails. The fiscal note to essentially similar 2005 legislation (which, I should add, was a source of much contention and the only example I know of where the Legislative Budget Board found a sentence "enhancement" would cost money) said that by the time the penalty increase rolled out fully, it would cost the state more than $10 million extra per year to incarcerate the additional offenders. That figure would be even greater calculated at today's costs.

The Texas Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, by contrast, gave out just over $14 million in grants to local law enforcement in 2010. In other words, it would cost more or less a similar amount to Rep. Riddle's proposed penalty enhancement (once the 2005 LBB estimates are adjusted for inflation).

Burglary of a vehicle (BOV) - which can be anything from reaching into an open window to lift a CD to smashing a window to steal a car stereo or Christmas gifts in the mall parking lot - is a crime with extremely low clearance rates (i.e., even when reported, the crimes usually aren't solved or often even investigated). There are definitely career criminals out there making a living at BOV, but it's also an offense that's sometimes a crime of opportunity which ensnares juveniles and other immature souls.

In that context, resources from TABTPA focused on solving crimes, to my mind, get a lot more bang for the buck than paying for the state to incarcerate first-time offenders. The career thieves who may break into hundreds of vehicles are the ones you want off the street, but it's important to distinguish them from the teenager who's caught lifting a couple of CDs. And of course, if the value of goods stolen is greater than $1,500, it's a state jail felony, anyway - the proposed enhancements would apply to those who steal lesser amounts.

Boosting punishments may sound "tough," but you can't punish offenders if you never catch them, which is where these grants come in, paying for investigation resources beyond local departments' routine deployments and letting them coordinate across jurisdictions. That said, the authority has focused most of its resources on preventing auto theft, and a credible critique can be made that they haven't focused grants as intently on BOV as on straight-up car theft, where 2/3 of stolen vehicles are recovered. Perhaps, if their funds are reinstated, they'll get a chance to rectify that shortcoming.

In any event, there are quite a few bills filed already this session that would increase first-offense BOV to a state-jail felony and/or restrict community supervision options. (Repeat offenders already get mandatory jail time on the second offense and a state jail felony charge on the third.) Such so-called "enhancements," as a practical matter, are in direct budget competition with TABTPA grant money, with the economic crunch forcing the Lege to choose its preferred approach to these crimes: Solving them or grandstanding about them.

Obviously, Grits would prioritize the former. For offenses like burglary of a vehicle with low clearance rates, government should first focus scarce resources on catching the bad guys instead of assuming ever-harsher punishments will deter criminals to whom they're never applied.


Kirk said...

Do we have any leads on the guys who stole your car?


The got us working in shifts!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Outstanding Big Lebowski clip, Kirk! I'd forgotten about that scene. :)

Anonymous said...

I would think that a big deterrent to BOV is that newer vehicles have stereos that are unusable unless you know the specific programming code to install them into another cars' system. Heck, I replaced the battery in my wife's 2007 Honda, and the stereo would no longer work until I called the dealership, and properly identified myself. Only then would they give me the code unique to that car that would make everything work again.

I won't even go into detail about how hard it is to get into my 2010 car without setting off the standard equipment factory alarm. I can manually unlock the door with the factory key in the keylock itself, and the horn still starts blaring until I actually put the key in the ignition and start the car.

A Texas PO said...

I can see why LE would want the penalty for this offense to be increased because so many agencies are burdened with BOV calls year round. That, along with the ever increasing cost of insuring our vehicles, and the growing cost to repair a burglarized vehicle (which also increases insurance rates based on the make and model, and residence) are creating more problems for people already hurt by the economy. Doesn't make it right, but I agree that there needs to be a distinction between the opportunity crime and organized ring (which would likely fall under that expansive felony offense known as "Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity"), but I see where that can be a problem for prosecutors seeking to be fair with their punishment recommendations. I would much rather see the Lege focus its efforts on making a rational budget than focusing on things like BOV right now.

Shadowguv said...


Another good post that makes us think about the never ending 'tuff on crime' agenda; pure theater indeed.

That said I wonder how effective these grants actually are at reducing auto thefts. This category of crime is down at almost the same rate across the country, primarily as the previous poster points out, due to the technology that makes it much more difficult to steal a sitting car.


The national average declined to 315 thefts per 100,000 residents with Texas just slightly less at 309 per 100,000.

But the chart is impressive even if law enforcement tactics had little to do with the actual result.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good comments, folks.

You know, 12:23/shadowguv, it occurs to me that carmakers could similarly reduce BOV a tremendous amount just by making car windows out of stronger material that you can't break with a brick or a bat.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't really matter what the government does concerning this crime or any kind of burglary, whether it be a home, building or car.

People are getting damn tired of thieves which probably explains why more burglars are being shot today than ever before thus resulting in lower property crimes.

This article is 9 years old but remains true today.


Anonymous said...

O.P.P. - Other People's Property. Some folks just like OPP.

"O.P.P." is a 1991 song recorded by rap group Naughty by Nature. The song made it to the U.S. Top Ten (peaking at #6), propelling their self titled album Naughty by Nature to platinum status.

Scott D said...

When I first started in law enforcement in the early 1990's, BMV was a felony in Texas. Now they want to change it back? They changed it to a misdemeanor as prosecutors got tired of the felony caseload for what is in reality a minor offence. Would you rather limited felony prosecution resources be used for serious criminals or minor thieves?

Anonymous said...

Shadowguv, you mention that the new developments by car makers has a lot to do with these stats...that is partially true. However, in Texas more than 80% of the cars stolen are 2006 or older...before most of the changes were made to these vehicles. ABTPA funds pay for things like bait car systems and other tools that catch bad guys. Not just teenagers, I am talking about hard core prison gang members, etc. The hard pill to swallow here is that the funds are NOT TAX DOLLARS. They come from a fee we all pay on our insurance premiums. That state has already been slowly raiding these funds and now they want it all. You will still pay the fee, but you will not get the results when the Task Forces are gone.

Anonymous said...

The problem I see with the Senate not funding the ABTPA is that the funds used to fund this agency come from the insurance industry. These are not state funds. Every vehicle that has an insurance policy a $1.00 accessment fee is charged to your policy. Thats what fund these task forces. Grits your right they should focus more on the vehicle burglars. But when they were given vehicle burglaries 2 sessions ago, they were givn no additional funds(which were available) to combat vehicle burglaries. The state is going to keep you $1.00 and that 16 million will go to the general fund and their will be no one doing anything whether auto theft related or burlary. But mark my word, the insurance rates will increase. The auto theft rate will increase and recoveries will go down. In the big picture, the insurance companies who have rek the benefit if these task forces will now suffer.