Shoplifting reports to the Los Angeles Police Department jumped by a quarter in the first year, according to statistics the department compiled for The Associated Press. The ballot measure also lowered penalties for forgery, fraud, petty theft and drug possession.It's so rare (but more common than many people admit) to see good direct cause and effect in criminal justice. My general belief is that people don't give a damn a potential penalty and instead commit crimes when they think they won't get caught. But I could be wrong.
The increase in shoplifting reports set up a debate over how much criminals pay attention to penalties, and whether law enforcement is doing enough to adapt to the legal change.
I remember a conversation on the street, back when I was a cop. From my notes:
Had a weird talk with a guy who was suspected of pointing a gun out a car window. No gun was found. The guy said, “I don’t have a gun, I’m a convicted felon!” I asked him for details. He said he did strong armed robbery, no weapon involved other than hands, got four years.Back in California:
I said, you didn’t do that in Baltimore, cause you won't get 4 years for yoking [unarmed robbery] in the city. Turned out it was in the county. He said the max was seven years. He was expecting 2 years for a four year crime: “I wouldn’t have done it if I knew it was seven years.”
Let me get this right, you’re saying you weighed the severity of the punishment with the how-useful-is-the-crime?
“I always weighed the punishment.... I was [also] copping for others, but they didn’t send me any commissary money. Fuck that, if they won’t look after me.... So now I’m trying to go straight.”
Prosecutors, police and retailers ... say the problem is organized retail theft rings whose members are well aware of the reduced penalties.On the other hand:
"The law didn't account for that," said Capt. John Romero, commander of the LAPD's commercial crimes division. "It did not give an exception for organized retail theft, so we're seeing these offenders benefiting and the retailers are paying the price."
Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, disputes those sorts of anecdotes.My first thought is that seems like ideological wishful thinking. It might be hard to want see how... but you can try harder.
His organization recently reported finding no effect on property crimes and larceny rates in 23 states that increased the threshold to charge thefts as felonies instead of misdemeanors between 2001 and 2011. California raised its threshold from $400 in 2010.
"It's hard to see how raising the level to $950 in California would touch off a property crime wave when raising it to $2,000 in South Carolina six years ago hasn't registered any impact at all," Gelb said.
But here's what I don't get. Why can't police investigate serious misdemeanor? (Hell, in Baltimore they're putting cops on trial for minor misdemeanors.)
The article concludes:
For his part, Lutz, the hobby shop owner, has provided police with surveillance videos, and even the license plate, make and model of the getaway vehicles.But why should a legal and semantic redefinition "tie police hands"? Police could investigate; they are choosing not to investigate because the crime -- with the same dollar amount as last year -- has been redefined a misdemeanor. That's more a police choice. And maybe it's not the right one.
"They go, 'Perry, our hands are tied because it's a misdemeanor,'" Lutz said. "It's not worth pursuing, it's just a waste of manpower."
[Though in some states (I don't know about California) the rules are different and many misdemeanor crimes need to be viewed by a cop for a cop to make an arrest. That said, shoplifting is an exception.]
Leaving aside the specifics, I think more felonies should be misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are crimes, too. These days almost everything can be a felony, and that's not right. Felonies are supposed to be life-changing citizen-disqualifying kinds of crime. Not run of the mill drugs or non-violent theft. Maybe sometimes people should get a year for a serious misdemeanor instead of a PB&J (probation before judgement).
Of course the prosecutor plays a big role, too. If misdemeanors don't get prosecuted, there's little point in making an arrest. The problem isn't that a serious crime is only a misdemeanor; the problem is we don't take misdemeanor's seriously.