Jail for ‘petty’ crimes

Hundreds of felons now clog Nevada prisons — serving sentences of one to 10 years on charges of “felony burglary” — for offenses as “minor” as stealing food from Walmart or clothes from T.J. Maxx.

A bill debated March 2 before the Assembly Judiciary Committee would make these non-violent, “category B” felons eligible for an earlier hearing with the Nevada Parole Board, potentially letting them out before they serve the minimum sentence and thus saving the state government hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We want to focus our resources on the serious crimes,” testified Orrin Johnson of the Washoe County public defender office. “We don’t want Nevada to be in the situation California was a few years ago, where they were literally letting violent offenders into the public because they didn’t have room.”

Under AB136, offenders with non-violent, non-sexual, non-weapons-related felonies such as burglary could earn credits for participating in rehabilitation or education programs, or by demonstrating good behavior. The credits would fast-track them to a hearing before the parole board.

About 600 prisoners would be immediately eligible for a hearing, according to parole board Chairwoman Connie Bisbee. Currently, 61 percent of people who come before the parole board are granted early release.

Public defender Johnson’s examples of felony burglaries that carry at least a year in prison included a man who stole $7.18 of deli meat from a Walmart, a mentally ill man who set a small fire at a drugstore greeting card display, and a man who was caught stealing a flashlight and an iPod adapter out of a vehicle.

“This is costing us a ton of money,” Mr. Johnson said.

But Mr. Johnson refers only to the government costs of incarceration, not to the costs borne by Nevada merchants who often fear they’ve been declared “fair game.”

Brett Kandt of the Nevada attorney general’s office asked legislators to “remember the victims in this process.”

“Victims have certain rights,” Kandt said. “We have an obligation … to inform victims about what a true minimum sentence could be.”

That makes the rights of crime victims sound like some minor technicality. In fact, unless one has owned or worked at a retail store, it’s hard to imagine the frustration of finding that yet another pair of expensive boots have “walked out the door” without payment, of finding more price tags ripped off stolen goods, wadded up and hidden in a corner.

On casual consideration, jail time for a “petty” theft sounds disproportionate. But the retailer understands that scores, even hundreds of thefts may occur before anyone is “caught red-handed.” What’s a business owner supposed to do? In our litigious age, the proprietor risks a lawsuit if he tackles a perpetrator as he or she skips out the door. Police are understandably reluctant to commit hours to stakeouts in pursuit of “mere shoplifters,” while the perception is widespread that if the laughing thief turns out to be a juvenile, it’ll be “catch and release” yet again.

All this “inventory shrinkage” has to be passed along in consumer prices, making our remaining retail stores ever more vulnerable to online competitors with lower overhead. A widespread belief that such crimes are “no big deal” contributes to all those empty storefronts out there.

Meantime, Nevada has plenty of charitable food banks and thrift stores — few if any thieves join in applying this “death by a thousand cuts” to local free enterprise because they’re actually starving.

Some do it for fun. And few thieves go to prison the first time they’re caught — or even the third.

Proponents of the measure assured legislators the proposed credits system was not a “get out of jail free” card; that the parole board would assess each case individually to determine whether the prisoner deserved an early release.

Jail time is indeed expensive, and it’s not clear the duration of a sentence really does much more to convince the criminal class of the error of their ways. At some point, for those who have adopted this as a way of life, we’re going to have to consider exile.

In the meantime, as the state looks for ways to trim costs, AB136 is certainly worth a look. But the committee should consider adding an amendment, stipulating legal immunity for storekeepers and their employees who use force to catch or stop such criminals in the act.

Law-abiding merchants should not live in fear for their safety and their livelihood; thieves should.

3 Comments to “Jail for ‘petty’ crimes”

  1. MamaLiberty Says:

    “Law-abiding merchants should not live in fear for their safety and their livelihood; thieves should.”

    Amen, and being free to defend oneself is always the best, and the best deterrent to crime. When that fails, however, the thieves should, first and foremost, be paying restitution to the victims. No release should be considered until the victim is restored as much as possible to the pre-crime state.

    Many criminals see incarceration as simply a paid vacation or a university course in criminality. Prison conditions should be such that they sincerely do not want to return.

    The old chain gang, or breaking large rocks into smaller ones, did have some merit.

  2. liberranter Says:

    As MamaLiberty says, thieves should, first and foremost, be PAYING RESTITUTION TO THEIR VICTIMS. One of the flaws of our “justice” system is its underlying philosophical assumption that crimes are committed first and foremost against “the state,” “society,” or other amorphous abstractions rather than actual individuals. Under this assumption, the petty thief who steals a pack of cigarettes from a local convenience store has committed his crime against “society” rather than the store owner, with the result that the punishment for the crime rarely ever involves restitution to the actual victim*. Were the philosophy one of placing the individual victim first, the store owner would be given first privilege in determining, perhaps with aid of an arbitrator, what is just and reasonable compensation for theft if the defendant is convicted of the crime (or perhaps found liable for theft or loss of property, if extra-judicial arbitration takes place in some future stateless society). This compensation might include payment of monies equivalent to the cost of pursuing theft charges against the defendant, whether in the form of court costs or legal expenses, or reimbursement for lost income or wages resulting from the theft. It might also include punitive damages as means of discouraging the thief from repeating his offending behavior. It is unlikely, however, that punishment or compensation would include jail time unless the thief was a repeat offender. Even then, other reasonable alternatives must certainly be available that don’t cost disinterested taxpayers money.

    (*Indeed, as the late, great Murray Rothbard, among others, pointed out, the victim is dealt a doube blow of indignity and injustice by not only NOT being compensated for his property loss, but by being forced, via taxation, to subsidize the defendant’s prolonged incarceration.)

  3. Bruce D Says:

    Add to this the idea that ‘society has caused the thief to be this way… made them this way” and you’ve got a real quandry. This idiology means that the store owner is actually RESPONSIBLE, as part of society, for the fact that the thief decided to victimize them. I say it’s time to bring back the town square complete with stocks and rotten fruit. Bring back the cane, make it so the little bugger will never be able to sit on wicker furniture again.

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