Friday, February 29, 2008

Felony rap for stealing copper wire hasn't stopped thefts

Laws increasing criminal penalties tend to be a one-way ratchet; they only get harsher, they're seldom reduced.

An example that will likely be with us for a while is the new law making theft of metal wire a state jail felony - one of House Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Aaron Peña's many pet enhancements last session. Peña's bill made stealing copper, aluminum or bronze wire a felony regardless of the value of the wire! But the law apparently failed to scare away would-be copper thieves as its proponents predicted.

I say that because on Wednesday afternoon, the lights went out in the Grits household, shutting down all computer equipment (I lost a half-finished blog post, actually), lights, washing machine, and everything else in the house. Looking outside, I quickly realized the whole neighborhood had gone dark.

The blackout just lasted a couple of hours, but it wasn't till yesterday evening I learned the cause: A thief electrocuted himself pretty severely trying to steal copper wire from an electrical substation. He got zapped with 80,000 Volts, if you can imagine- about 7,300 homes including mine lost their power.

In committee hearings over this bill last year, Peña and supporters said the legislation would "send a message" that dissuaded copper theft. But who has received it?

Instead of passing laws like this one that eat up more prison beds, perhaps that money would have been better spent renting a billboard because this fellow didn't get the "message." An energy company spokesman told the Statesman:
"Unfortunately, this incident will serve as a type of illustration of what can potentially occur," Clark said. "It's a pretty difficult problem when a person is willing to totally disregard their safety and go into a substation because, generally speaking, the people who are doing this type of thing are not knowledgeable and could not come close to recognizing the potential dangers."
A significant percentage of scrap metal thieves also number among the homeless population, which brings with it a whole 'nuther range of barriers to preventing these thefts. That's important not because it excuses bad behavior, but because it provides information that helps craft a solution. Obviously I don't want my electricity going off because of copper thieves; but at the same time, as a practical matter neither did the "enhanced" penalty prevent that from happening.

If someone is a) uneducated, and b) willing to risk their lives, why would legislators think jacking up the penalty to a felony (as opposed to more vigorously enforcing misdemeanor statutes), would do anything but give them "three hots and a cot" for a longer period on the taxpayers' dime?

That doesn't make anyone safer, but it sure helps fill the prisons faster, particularly when you "enhance" a misdemeanor to a felony, as Chairman Peña's bill did. A better solution in my view is to focus on vendors who purchase scrap metal illicitly. (See the final item in this post.) Dry up the black market on the demand side, and they'll soon have little reason to steal.

I don't know what the ultimate solution(s) to copper theft will turn out to be - probably in the long term, shifting to cheaper wire made of blended metals that don't have the same resale value. (Camera systems, touted in the Statesman clip, require extra police resources for rapid response or they're pretty worthless in such cases.)

There's a decent chance that the homeless guy or drug addict who risks their life to steal copper already have enough obstacles to success in life without adding a felony beef; it's not like copper thieves couldn't be punished - with up to a year in jail - under the law as it was before. Criminal laws work best when they focus on outcomes in the real world, not the "message" some pol claims they'll send on the campaign trail.


Anonymous said...

So let's make it a class c misdemeanor and shock the shit out of 'em instead. Just joking! Don't get huffy.

Anonymous said...

Given enough time, I'm sure you can come up with a "lefty" solution. Concentrate Grits, concentrate! We all know the problem, it's the solution that eludes you, and us.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"it's the solution that eludes you, and us."

Yup, but instead of looking for a solution, the Lege just passed another enhancement so it looks like they're doing something, even if it doesn't help.

I actually did suggest a "lefty" solution: Targeting the vendors who purchase scrap metal (see the last item in this post). I don't know if that's "lefty" or not, but then that was your label, not mine. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Isn't Pena the same guy who famously bragged about having "fixed" TYC right after SB103 was passed last year?


Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's the guy, Bill. The committee he chaired was the primary source of criminal penalty enhancements last year on the adult side. He's also the fellow who the bill sponsors blamed (he disputes his role) for causing the Innocence Commission bill die.

Evins is in his district.

As a TYC employee said when the Chairman made that comment, what they did to TYC starts with "F" and ends with "ed," but it's not "fixed." :)

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify something here, solutions are neither left nor roght, they are human and humane. Wire theft is a common form of income for homeless individuals, it is an easy way to earn a meal or a drink. The only message that Chairman Pena sent was "make it worth you while" which is exactly what happenned to Scott's neighborhood.


Anonymous said...

I agree they should target the vendor/s. Much like they target employers who hire illegals. Same difference.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Much like they target employers who hire illegals"

If that analogy is what it takes for you to get there, fine. I certainly think it would work better than has raising penalties for thieves.

And @ davidt500 - I'd be shocked if this guy knew the law had been changed (with apologies for the bad pun). :)

Anonymous said...

I've always found it interesting, and revealing, that we have essentially opposite policies regarding the illegal flow of drugs and people into the US.

With drugs: We penalize US consumers disproportionately and have a largely ineffective interdiction program (for reasons too long to go into here).

With immigrants: We let the main US consumers, who are employers of illegal immigrants, off the hook, and instead pour resources into interdiction, detainment, imprisonment, and deportation.

It's also much easier for American business (i.e., jobs) to cross borders in one direction, than for immigrants who can't live on the wages of those jobs to cross into the US, which they do predictably b/c their economy is a train wreck... as even a cursory look at the maquiladoras reveals.

I'm not opposed to what's called "free trade" per se, but the way it exists right now is basically a latter-day form of 16th century mercantilism - a closed system of profit-making built on the backs of exploited labor in one country for the benefit of a few in a more powerful country.

People who bitch about immigration seem to never pause to think about who actually benefits most from current conditions. It's not immigrants themselves, nor, in most cases, is it American workers, who continue to direct their anger at the wrong target... encouraged by media networks owned, in some cases, by the very same corporations with huge investments in trade agreements like NAFTA.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, Grits, that was a classic caffeine-induced rant...


Anonymous said...

If passing a law against something ever worked in discouraging people to commit the crime, you would never have to up the penalty for commiting it later. Honestly, when will folks realise this - when the number of Americans incarcerated is closer to 1 in 50 than 1 in 99?

Oh and on immigration: my little country seems to have coped pretty well with giving up manufacturing on any big scale completely and concentrating on service industry employment. We've got half of Poland here at the moment driving our busses, wiring our new homes and fixing our teeth, and one of the lowest unemployment rates ever.

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that aint gonna stop them crackheads from hopping yo fence and doing a number on your air conditioner