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Car thefts a vexing issue

POSTED February 8, 2012 8:34 a.m.
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The theft of automobiles is one of the more vexing crime problems in California. It has plagued us for the last 15 years, with California having earned the dubious distinction of having the worst problem out of all the states. The reasons for the high auto theft rates are many, and they include the fact that California has a high rate of car ownership per family, shares an international border with Mexico (where many stolen vehicles end up) and there are multiple shipping ports along our coast.

Vehicles are stolen for many reasons, which include theft for selling in other states or countries, some are dismantled for parts in "chop shops," others are stolen and resold with phony vehicle identification numbers, and in some instances, vehicles are stolen to commit robberies or other crimes and then abandoned afterwards.

In Ceres, we have seen a significant auto theft decline from 2010 to 2011. In 2010, 452 vehicles were stolen. In 2011, the number of auto thefts dropped down to 282, representing an approximate 39 percent decrease. This decrease is attributable to increased public awareness, improved vehicle security features, and law enforcement efforts, including the bait car program, as well as other less obvious factors.

While the aforementioned figures give cause for relief knowing that there have been and will be fewer victims (at least in the near future), I am not at all convinced that the auto theft rate will stay at its current [relatively] low rate. In fact, current trends within this state are setting the stage for a likely increase again after just a few short years. The factors influencing the future include the massive early release of criminals from the state prisons, pressure on local jails, the inability of prosecutors' to handle the overwhelming numbers of criminal cases with their limited resources, and the fact that criminals, in general, will be facing lighter sentences owing to the reduced funding situation of the state's criminal justice system.

The top 10 areas for auto theft are in the following order: Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield, Spokane, Washington, Vallejo-Fairfield, Sacramento-Roseville, Stockton, Visalia-Porterville, San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, and Yakima, Washington. Our Modesto area has held the auto theft capital label for many years during the past decade, and while we are "only" in the number two spot for 2011, we can hardly celebrate this unfortunate distinction. It seems we have had a brief reprieve, but our auto theft standing in the country is a pitiful commentary about the criminals in our respective communities.

Indeed, much progress has been made. In 2005, the Modesto area suffered almost 7,000 auto thefts. In 2011, the number was down to 3,011. The major concern here is that it is entirely possible to return to the peak statistical years when the thefts were more than double what they are now. The "system" is probably 25 percent (or more) smaller than what it was just a few years ago, so less law enforcement, coupled with a less rigorous prosecutorial and corrections system may set the stage for an auto theft upswing again.

I do not see the system getting increased funding anytime soon, so it is very important to practice prevention techniques, which include the use of alarms, devices like LoJack and OnStar, vehicle disabling devices, steering wheel locks, and other technology to deter auto thieves. It is also essential that people always lock their vehicles and never leave the engine running while unattended, never leave keys in the car, and try to park where it is difficult for thieves to go unnoticed with good lighting and in busy areas.
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