Thursday, May 7, 2009

Burglary, she wrote

While it gets little attention from crime novels or television shows, burglary resulting in mere theft (as opposed to rape or murder) is among the crimes that most touches the real lives of people, sometimes in ways that are devastating and always (at least with home burglary) with a strong sense of violation and lingering threat. I have long suspected that fear of burglary and frustration with what seems to be the inability of law enforcement to prevent them that has helped anchor popular support for mass imprisonment. Regardless of the real threat posed by burglars, the sense of dread they elicit is anchored in the very high value we placed (at least until last year) on our homes, especially here in the "Golden State" (and even our cars, which for many people are an extension of the house and the body as vessels of self-hood).

Many readers who share my skepticism about the prison state, nonetheless want to know what the alternative is to address this strongly felt concern. A reader of Pt I of the UC Berkeley News Center Interviews wrote in today to note:
My wife, son and I live in a very nice neighborhood - Westwood, Los Angeles, CA. Crime has increased here - burglaries, robberies - no violent crime, but still, we're concerned about our safety.

By coincidence my neighbor here in north Berkeley came by at 6:30 this morning to tell me my Honda civic stood open and apparently rifled (nothing worth taking since my trunk is full of clothes to take to recycling and sadly used books rejected by our local bookstores).

These kinds of crimes, more than drive by shootings, loom large in many urban neighborhoods were middle class families have been increasingly wanting to move to enjoy the transportation, parks, and stores. These families who have the resources to move to the high security suburbs but want urban values, are highly sensitive to crime pressure. These include upscale neighborhoods, like the Rockridge district of Oakland, but also more working class neighborhoods, like the San Antonio district, or the Mission district of San Francisco.

The key to these kinds of crime is that they are intensely local, driven by very specific dynamics of place, time, and transport. For example, my younger brother Adam and his wife Cassandra, had their home in Melbourne, Australia, burgled one afternoon while out with their child, with a devastating loss of laptop computers loaded with invaluable writing and pictures (both are writers). Not unlike the Bay Area, Melbourne has bustling urban neighborhoods full of young families proximate to blighted areas in which abandoned businesses and homes provide refuge for the drug addicted to congregate, purchase, and consume. Thanks to freeway on-ramps and well designed urban boulevards, an addict watching a house can see a family depart, enter the house by breaking window on the side or back, and fifteen minutes after leaving be engaged in selling the laptops and scoring drugs.

Can you fight this kind of crime by locking up every drug addict for as long as they are addicted? Probably, but at costs that are levels above even our unsustainable corrections budget in California. But there are other more promising strategies.

Well developed community policing strategies can identify this kind of pattern and concentrate police surveillance on both ends of the circuit.

Home alarms and secure windows can make entry harder and police surveillance more effective.

If you ask me giving drugs away to addicts in a secure and hygienic policed environment would be the most elegant solution but we are not there yet politically.

Keep in mind that even more common are burglaries by teenagers in your own neighborhood. They feel safest and most entitled to creep about the place, and they often have short term spending plans that even my worthless junk might help them get. Inviting a police officer over for block meeting if you've had more than one such incident nearby is a good idea and may help identify the culprits.

We can do more of all of this while keeping virtually all of our burglars out of state prison. People convicted of burglary without violence or intent to commit violence, should do a stretch in county jail to remind them that this is a real crime and then be under a beefed up county probation system.

1 comment:

ms_snark said...

Not only does the US have harsher penalties for burglary than most Western countries, California goes a step further. A burglary is considered a serious felony and the offender receives a 'strike'; the residence does not have to be occupied, nor does the act need to involve forced entry. Stealing a bicycle out of an open garage is considered burglary, if the offender has the poor judgment to commit the same act twice, any subsequent conviction for virtually any offense will yield a 25 year sentence under 3 strikes.

The three strike law applies retroactively to those with convictions prior to the passage of the law, why appellate courts have upheld the constitutionality of that is just amazing.

A prison inmate with any strike prior, is ineligible for one of the very few promising programs offered by CDCR, drug treatment furlough which bridges the transition between prison and release.

An individual can run around with pipe bombs and molotov cocktails, or beat their spouse senseless and neither is considered to be a serious or violent offense, but entering an unoccupied home is.

Strange world we live in...