October 03, 2007
If only there were some way to track where it went

Got one of those newfangled GPS units in your car? Watch out, it might get stolen.

Valuable stuff has been swiped from cars forever, but the theft of portable satellite-navigation units is dramatically increasing in many places. Crime analysts blame an alignment of economic and technological factors, while victims lament that the units, which cost several hundred dollars, are rarely recovered or replenished by insurance.

In Maryland's Montgomery County, outside Washington, D.C., 620 portable navigation devices were filched from cars through Aug. 31, blowing past the 189 taken in all of 2006. In downtown Philadelphia, GPS thefts jumped to 88 in the first eight months of the year from 33 in the same period of 2006. Police in San Francisco and the Boston area also have cited increases -- as have authorities in Australia and Britain.

Police say the perpetrators are getting more brazen, stealing units in busy places during the day. California Attorney General Jerry Brown's Lincoln Town Car had been parked outside a state building in San Francisco's Civic Center for only about 10 minutes recently when a thief grabbed the GPS device inside.

Even people who take their GPS gadgets off their dashboards when they leave their cars are returning to find windows smashed, as thieves gamble that an empty plastic cradle suction-cupped to the windshield means a GPS unit has been hidden in the car.

It gets worse: Taking the plastic cradle off the windshield might not be enough if the suction cup leaves a ring of film on the glass. That alone can signal a thief.

That's why police in Montgomery County, Md., handed out 1,200 microfiber cloths at a fair this summer and told motorists to clear suction-cup rings. Other cops advise using moist towelettes

Speaking as the father of two small children, I can attest to the awesomeness of moist towelettes. That they could also fight crime was, I must confess, a boon that even I had not considered.

Now this would normally be the place where I'd make a quip about the need to equip these devices with their own GPS locators, but I'm not going to do that. I'm going to observe that if this trend continues - and it likely will, even as the price for these things inevitably starts to decline - we're likely going to see a call for the Lege to git tuff on car burglaries and start increasing penalties for this kind of crime. Because that sort of thing is a deterrent, you see, one that makes the rational thief weigh the cost of a long sentence against the benefit of boosting a TomTom. There's just one small fly in the ointment: As Grits points out, the odds are that our rational thief will never be caught.

The national "clearance rate" for serious crimes in 2006 - i.e., the percentage of reported crimes solved, by police according to the new Uniform Crime Report - seems awfully low to me:

  • Nationwide in 2006, 44.3 percent of violent crimes and 15.8 percent of property crimes were cleared by arrest or exceptional means.

  • Of the violent crimes (murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault), murder had the highest percentage of offenses cleared at 60.7 percent.

  • Of the property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft), larceny-theft had the highest percentage of offenses cleared at 17.4 percent.

  • Eighteen percent of arson offenses were cleared by arrest or exceptional means.

It's no wonder many in the public don't feel safe if 55% of violent crimes and 84% of property crimes go unsolved! If 82% of arson victims never see the offender held accountable, sure, I'd be unhappy, too. The 60.7% clearance rate for homicides is especially troubling - that means 39.3% of killers literally get away with murder!

Politicians routinely point to UCR crime statistics to argue for longer and more punitive criminal sentences. But to me these numbers imply a different solution: Greater resources and focus on solving crimes and catching criminals in the first place.

If the national clearance rate for burglary is only 12.6% (and in the single digits in some Texas cities), then punishing the few burglars who're caught more harshly makes only a small dent in crime. A better strategy would be to put more investigative resources into solving a great percentage of burglaries.

When punishment is uncertain or even unikely, the economic model of crime (where punishments are considered the "price" of criminal conduct) break down - there's a "free rider problem," to use the economists' jargon, because most offenders don't actually pay the "price," i.e, the legislatively established punishment. That's a big reason the death penalty provides little deterrent. The sentence is imposed on less than 2% of convicted murderers, but nearly 40% of the time a killer will never face punishment at all.

Just something to keep in mind when the next new lock-em-up bill is filed. Why worry about doing the time if you're not going to get busted?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 03, 2007 to Crime and Punishment