Police: Justice reform bill contributing to increase property crime

Steena Hymes

February 19, 2014

LaGrange police believe a state law reducing punishment for thefts and burglaries is putting more repeat offenders back out on the street.

The LaGrange public safety annual report highlighted that property crimes are up 30 percent so far for 2014. When presenting the report, LaGrange Public Safety Chief Lout Dekmar said that “there is a de-emphasis by the state of keeping people in prison, particularly those involved in property crime.”

He was referring to justice reform House Bill 1176, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in May of 2012, which reduced the punishment for burglary and theft and altered the threshold amounts constituting what qualifies as a misdemeanor or felony. As a result, LaGrange police officials say they now have ongoing problems with property crimes and are concerned with the recidivism rate of those arrested for property crimes.

HB 1176 was passed in an effort to address several issues including prison over-crowding, corrections costs and strategies to strengthening community-based corrections and supervision.

However, Dekmar said the law effectively passes the state’s buck to law-abiding residents.

“They reduced the amount of time and the penalties and allowed for limited consequence for those involved in property crime … with the notion that it costs too much to keep people in prison, ignoring the fact that when these people are not in prison, and they are career thieves, that instead of paying for them to be housed at the tax payers’ expense, individual citizens are now subsidizing their freedom,” he said.

The bill creates new degrees of burglary with graduated punishment for the type of charge, increasing how severe a theft is before it is considered a felony. Punishments for residential burglaries also are treated as more severe than businesses and commercial burglaries.

On shoplifting charges, previously anything more than $300 in stolen property was considered a felony, but HB 1176 increased that to $500. It isn’t until the fourth offense that the suspect must spend a year in jail.

Possibly the most significant jump is punishment for theft. Theft of $500 or more was considered a felony. Now anything up to $1,500 is considered a misdemeanor, with the third offense becoming a felony carrying a sentence of one to five years. However, Dekmar said the court has the discretion to treat any thefts up to $25,000 as a misdemeanor.

“Legislative policy have a direct consequence on public safety and what has been clear, at least in my opinion, the emphasis has been on cost-saving, not on protecting the public,” Dekmar said.

Dekmar said he believes there should be opportunities available to people convicted of a crime to rehabilitate into productive members of society, but that it should be merit-based.

Andy Zimmerman, chief parole officer, said the reason more people are getting out on parole is not because they are being released before they should, it’s because they are now being released when they should. Releases previously were backlogged, but a shift to a paperless process has fixed that problem, he said.

Last year, 12.2 percent of parolees were serving for burglary or theft crime, Zimmerman said. Average time served on parole was 1.55 years for burglary and 1.28 years for theft.

“Our main goal obviously is public safety, that’s number one,” he said. “If we know someone is out there doing something that they’re not suppose to, we’re going to get them off the street.”

However, he said another large focus is teaching criminals to be sound members of the community.

“If we give up on them too quick sometimes, then its almost counter-productive,” he said. “Sometimes, prison is not the best thing for them.”

Zimmerman also added that at some point, the root cause of behavior must be addressed and dealt with.

He said one solution of preventing thefts and burglaries is to aid parolees in finding employment. Zimmerman said not only does having a job keep individuals busy, it also puts money in their pocket, decreasing the incentive for stealing. He also stressed the importance of community engagement with rehabilitating those on parole or probation.

“I think one thing people don’t understand is … they expect us to wave a magic wand over them and fix them and they have got to realize that we’ve got a product sometimes that’s not the most polished,” Zimmerman said. “We need the help of the community too.”

Starting in 2012, due to budget cuts, the parole office went virtual, eliminating a physical space for officers to work in. Zimmerman said the virtual office has been effective and allows officers to visit their parolees in his or her environment and get a better read on their progress. He said it also has created an increase in productivity in the field.

As far as the new policies put in place by HB 1176, Zimmerman said it will take years to see its impact on the parole office.

Currently, there doesn’t appear to be any legislative push-back on HB 1176, though police are looking for solutions to keep property crimes down. With the charges being less severe, police are taking preventive measures trying to eliminate the opportunity for theft and burglary.

LaGrange police detective Chris Pritchett said he has seen more criminals released from jail due to the justice reform.

Pritchett is responsible for tracking and analyzing the habits of these criminals and said that for every one theft or burglary crime committed, based on motive and habits, he can determine that the suspect is responsible for many cases. While he sends patrol cars to high-risk and suspect areas, Pritchett said there is only so much ground that can be monitored with limited resources.

Automobile thefts also were up last year, ending with a 7 percent increase, Pritchett said. With the new reform, automobile thefts are no longer automatically a felony, unless it is a commercial vehicle. Police have launched a new effort to eliminate the opportunity for auto thefts by patrolling parked cars and identifying targets for theft, like those left unlocked and those with valuables in the car. Police will place a “gotcha” ticket on the car identifying what makes their vehicle a target for theft, hoping drivers will be more mindful.

Pritchett said the end of 2013 saw a 20 percent decrease in overall thefts and burglaries compared to 2012, though those numbers have already increased in 2014.

Dekmar said the solution to these crimes is, “If you want to alter behavior, then there’s got to be a consequence to that behavior.”