June 11, 2007
Causation, correlation, and car burglaries

Three things about this Chron story regarding car break-ins and enhanced sentencing for repeat offenders. One is that old chestnut about causation and correlation.

After Texas lawmakers downgraded car burglary to a misdemeanor more than a decade ago, vehicle break-ins exploded in the biggest cities.

In Houston in 1995, the year after penalties were reduced, vehicle burglaries jumped more than 20 percent, to roughly 23,000, police say. Last year, the city recorded 32,362 car break-ins.

Looking to reverse the trend, which contributes heavily to big-city crime rates, the Legislature passed a bill this session to restore burglary of a vehicle -- breaking into a vehicle and stealing something from it -- to a felony for repeat offenders.

The clear inference one draws from these paragraphs is that de-felonizing the crime of breaking into a car led to the increase in that crime; one should therefore also expect a drop in said crime now that repeat offenders can get state jail time. No evidence is offered in the story to support this conclusion, but it's clearly the one we're intended to draw from the opening paragraphs.

Which is all the more odd when you realize that contradictory evidence come later on:

Police say vehicle burglars not only target valuables but papers and cards useful in identity theft. As people spend more time in their cars, police say, they have become increasingly lax about leaving behind wallets, purses and briefcases targeted by identity thieves.

Gosh, you think the greater number of wallets, purses, and briefcases being left behind in parked cars might be a contributing factor to the increase in break-ins? Maybe just a little? And who are these people leaving these things in their cars, anyway? How anyone can think that might be a good idea boggles my mind.

And finally:

Houston police Capt. James Jones, who handles legislative matters for the department, said increased penalties for the crime stalled in the Legislature two years ago, and supporters this session were forced to abandon their push to make a first or second offense a felony.

He said increased penalties will give police more incentive to target repeat offenders. But car burglaries will remain a difficult crime to solve.

The legislation includes money to educate motorists about a crime estimated to cost Texans more than $200 million a year.

How will enhanced sentences help if we're not catching the bad guys in the first place? I'm glad to see that we're going to spend some money trying to educate people about the dangers of leaving valuables in their cars, since however blindingly obvious that sounds it's still likely to have a greater effect on this crime than the punishment will. But do we really not have any other tools in our toolbox besides "git tuff"? Is there nothing we could do to make it easier for the police to solve these crimes? For all the money we spend on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, you'd think we could get some better outcomes than this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 11, 2007 to Crime and Punishment

I'm surprised the Chronic did not mention SUVs in there somewhere.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on June 11, 2007 1:00 PM