Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Burglary of a vehicle ... blech!

In today's House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing there are a whole bunch of bills scheduled on the topic of boosting the penalty for burglary of a vehicle. This is not stealing a vehicle, but stealing a purse or CDs or car stereo out of somebody's car. (Here's a fact sheet opposing the version of the bill that passed the House in 2005.)

Current law makes burglary of a vehicle a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a $4,000 fine and a year in the county jail. Zealots last year wanted to boost the first offense to a state jail felony, meaning everyone who stole a CD out of a car would be a felon and incarcerated in the Texas prison system.

Y'all, a lot of CDs get stolen out of cars in this state - we're talking about a lot of folks. So yes, it's really a bad idea. But that doesn't mean it won't soon become law.

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has correctly said this is a "boutique bill," that so many politicians have campaigned on it that some version of it will likely pass, sometime, somewhere. So he and Chairman Peña have crafted what I think is a reasonable compomise, the first version of which will be one of the bills heard today, HB 1887, in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

Bottom line: It makes burglary of a vehicle a state jail felony on the third offense, but with a devious addition that amounts to a finger in the eye of many of the bill's most ardent supporters, particularly county sheriffs who run the local jails, but also many county attorneys. It requires a minimum sentence of six months incarceration on the second offense before a state jail felony sentence can be imposed.

Why is that a jab at sheriffs (and to a lesser extent local prosecutors)? Because committee testimony in both chambers last session showed that offenders were receiving probated Class A misdemeanor sentences with little or no jail time many times over, primarily because - Duh! - local jails are full, and there wasn't any place to house somebody who stole his neighbor's copy of the new Jay-Z CD out of the convertible.

Well, guess what? There's no room in the state prison for that guy, either.

So this bill requires that second offenders spend six months in the local jail, where of course as regular readers know there is no room. In particular in Dallas, where many of the most zealous supporters of this bill come from, for whatever reason, this is exactly the type of offender they recently had to release to avoid sanctions by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards!

If I were the Dallas Sheriff, I'd oppose this bill until the local jail problem is fixed. Four of the nine committee members, like the Dallas Sheriff, are Dallas Democrats, three of them freshmen - I wonder how that will play out at the hearing?

Barring the unforeseen, like a backlash from sheriffs and jail administrators, at the end of the day some version of this bill will likely pass, if I had to guess, since it doesn't appear as though Chairman Whitmire is going to stop it like he did last time, and he and Chairman Peña are sponsoring identical bills.

The fiscal note for HB 1887 says the cost would be nearly $3.5 million per year by the time the legislation is fully applied (in the first couple of years some of the people sentenced, presumably, would have committed their offense under the old statute). But the Legislative Budget Board's methodology merely takes the current cost per prisoner at TDCJ and multiplies it by the number of new prisoners.

Problem is, we're already leasing 1,900 beds from counties, and the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee needs to reduce, not increase that number. The fiscal note estimates per diem costs for new inmates at $36.53, but we're paying counties more than $40, according to recent legislative testimony

But even that understates the cost. The truth is if we keep increasing the number of prisoners instead of reducing them, we're going to need more prisons which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, not less than $3.5 million per year, as optimistically predicted by the LBB. "No costs are included for state jail construction," declared LBB's fiscal note. Last session they used the same methodology, and I declared LBB was living in a "Fiscal Note Fantasy World."

If I could change the bill, I'd like to see the felony statute applied only when damage is done to the car. If you break a window with a brick to steal a purse with $20 in it, that's different to me than stealing it through an open window. Stealing CDs out of a car should never be a felony. But when my car stereo was ripped out and replacing the dash cost $1,400 - sure, by the third conviction those guys need to get the message.

In the big picture, though, it's worth mentioning that the best way to satisfy the public regarding this crime is more and better enforcement, not how hard we punish the small handful of people who are caught. Clearance rates for burglary of a vehicle are typically in the single digits, and police rarely seriously investigate low-level property crimes. The only way to really reduce this crime is more boots on the ground, but nobody can afford so many more officers or even find qualified canidates to fill slots when they're open.

So like HB 8, this is a bad bill with legs, though kudos to Whitmire and Peña for making the best of a bad situation.

For me, I think every legislator who proposes increasing prison sentences, and there are a lot of them, has a responsibility to simultaneously identify twice as many current inmates who should be released to make room for them, and include it in the bill language. I'm just saying, the prisons are full. Let's be realistic about how many more prison sentences Texas can reasonably increase.


Anonymous said...

Following up 800 pound gorilla's general theme: I wouldn't feel so bad about upping these crimes to a felony IF we turned all the low-level candy-ass drug possession type crimes into misdemeanor ticketable offenses (and emptied the jails/prisons accordingly). At least the powers that be would have their priorities straight.

Anonymous said...

The radio/cd player has been stolen out of my car 3 times. In each case a window was broken and the dash board damaged. The police take a report over the phone and won't come out. It cost me $500 to replace the window and the radio. The dash is still damaged in 3 places and I get disgusted every time I notice it. Almost every time I am out in my car I see a cop or several cops lying in wait to give out a traffic ticket. Just love the system.

Nick said...

At the end of January of this year, Houston Police Department reported a drop in nonviolent property crimes like vehicle burglary. Burglary was down 8.6%. Theft was down 5.5%, And even violent crimes dropped some. It should be noted that these improvements were achieved without any change in the law. It was, as the police chief said, a result of, “high visibility—very aggressive enforcement and in some areas zero tolerance enforcement.”

This highlights the fact that the laws we need are already in place, and local communities should be given the flexibility to make their own best choice about using them. A mandatory six month jail stay for burglary of a vehicle in large cities like Houston and Dallas will significantly limit their ability to prioritize serious crimes.