Over the last decade, our policy and resources have been focused, quite appropriately, on reducing violent crimes, sex offenses, and drug dealing. The original Sentencing Reform Act passed by the 1981 Legislature, placed auto theft at the bottom of the seriousness level list, with a rank of “I” and a standard range of 0 to 60 days. What has changed over the last 20 years is both the value of automobiles, and the prevalence of this crime. It is a crime that has significant economic impact on everyone who drives and insures a car in this country.
While auto theft by profit-seeking, professional car thieves is a growing cause of the a larger number of auto thefts, the vast majority of car thieves continue to be non-professionals, commonly juveniles interested in the cheap thrill of an easy steal. Usually, most thieves’ prowl cars for a short term gain and or drive, perhaps to assist in the furtherance of another crime, such as robbery. The majority of offenders are juveniles, unlicensed, and seeking a quick thrill ride and whatever personal property they can take, including car seats, stereos, and cell phones. The average profile of a car thief is someone who has likely committed many thefts and has many convictions. Furthermore, the majority of thefts are likely made by a small number of repeat offenders who continue the cycle. They face weak penalties, even after a half dozen convictions, and stealing thousands of dollars of equipment and causing immense property damage. The good news is that many of the stolen cars are recovered; the bad news is that they are often damaged by the thieves, who rip apart dashboards for stereos, recklessly or maliciously smash the body of the car, or even burn it to remove fingerprints.
There are many reasons for the increase in auto theft, one of them being the low chances of being caught. According to the FBI, nationally 14% of all car thefts end in arrests. More importantly are the consequences of being caught. In juvenile court it takes five convictions before a car thief can receive more than 30 days detention. Upon the fifth conviction for auto theft, the offender receives a sentence of 15 to 36 weeks. The adult sentencing range for a first time offender charged with auto theft is 0 to 60 days in jail. Under the current sentencing guidelines, it takes seven convictions for auto theft before an offender faces one year in prison. Even then, the 12-month sentence becomes an actual sentence of eight months, after good time reductions are factored in. This is no more than a slap on the wrist.
A simple solution to the increasing trend of grand theft auto would be to significantly raise the consequences of the crime. In adult sentencing Grand theft auto is ranked with a seriousness level of I, the lowest on the books. It shares this ranking with forgery, and “second degree” property crimes where the property has a value of over $250 and under $1,500. The average value of a stolen car is more than $5,000 according to FBI statistics. The current seriousness level makes this crime a bargain for the criminal. Like the adult sentencing system the juvenile sentencing system uses a numbering system, which lists the crimes seriousness. Rather than using Roman numerals, it ascribes a letter to each crime, ranging from A+ to E. Grand theft auto is currently a “C” under this system, with the result that it takes five convictions to be sentenced to a state JRA facility. By making the ranking a B, it would take three convictions for taking a motor vehicle to earn a commitment to JRA for a 15 to 36 week sentence. If prior convictions were counted as 2 points, and the seriousness level was increased to II, then it would take only three convictions for auto theft to earn a prison sentence, instead of seven convictions, as under present law. This proposal has little impact on the consequences to the first offender but represents a major change with how we punish chronic repeat offenders.
A possible argument against my solution would be that this system would cause an overcrowding of the prisons, in which there already exists. Although this argument in a way may prove to be true, my solution primarily focuses on repeat offenders. The major car thieves who get caught stealing repeatedly will be the ones to be sentenced to prison, keeping the number of car thieves imprisoned very low. This solution will leave the juveniles and one-time offenders with more points against them, giving them more of an incentive not to commit the same crime.
The price of cars has grown; so too should the price of stealing them. Elevating the crime from a C to a B felony, and from a seriousness level I to a II, plus double counting priors for adult offenders would put the proper value on today’s auto theft crime. Instead of seven convictions before prison, it would be three for adult offenders. Instead of five convictions before a JRA commitment, it would be three for juveniles. This is the best and most applicable solution.