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Let's do more to curb auto thefts
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For much of this decade, the Modesto "statistical reporting area" was ranked as having the highest auto theft rate in the nation. We had the dubious distinction of being "No. 1" in 2008, and while it is not much to brag about, we dropped to the No. 2 position for 2009. Laredo, Texas now holds the auto theft capital title.

The auto theft "rate" is a measure of the number of autos reported stolen per 100,000 residents. This calculation applies to all cities; even if the population is lower than 100,000. The Modesto reporting area, for example, had 3,712 auto thefts in 2009. Laredo, Texas had 1,792 thefts for 2009, but their "rate" is higher than the Modesto area because of the proportionally higher number of thefts for each 100,000 residents.

While it is sad that the Modesto reporting area continues, year-after-year, to be among the worst in the nation for auto thefts, it is somewhat satisfying to see that the situation is improving for us. In 2007, 5,358 vehicles were stolen, so there has been an approximate 28 percent drop since then. In 2005, almost 7,000 cars were stolen in our area. We are making progress.

There are many factors that affect the auto theft rate in any given area. These factors include: the economic conditions, proximity to international borders, the number of parolees that roam the streets, the number and nature of gangs that inhabit the area, the courts, local jail capacity, bail release standards and public concern (vs. apathy) about crime. We seem to have, in combination, a higher number of the aforementioned adverse variables affecting our crime rate. An area with a high auto theft rate is just as likely to have many other criminal and quality of life detractors, and it is in our interest to tackle this problem.

At times, public attitude, and that of the courts, reflects only low level concern about auto theft. One common opinion is that it is only a property crime, with no real safety implications for the public. At the same time, many people believe that most vehicles are insured, so the victims are only minimally inconvenienced. The fact is, however, that most stolen vehicles are older and not commonly insured for theft. They have value, nevertheless, and I doubt that many of the victims can really afford such losses. These vehicles are the means for people to get to work, take their kids to school or the family doctor, and other places of importance. Imagine waking up to find your car gone, with no ability to immediately replace it.

It is fair to say that car thieves are essentially the same people who peddle drugs, engage in drive-by shootings, burglarize, rob and murder. When the police catch car thieves, they often are able to connect the thieves to many other crimes. For example, stolen vehicles that are recovered oftentimes have stolen property in them from prior residential burglaries.

Since the criminal justice "system" tends to treat car thieves as nuisances instead of the hardcore criminals that they really are, they are among the first to be released from local jails and the prison system, in particular. And that is exactly what is in store for us, as tens of thousands of criminals are being "early-released" from California institutions. They will be unsupervised and frankly, will feel empowered to commit even more crime because of how the system has coddled them. We can look forward to much difficulty as the early-release numbers begin to increase. We are already seeing many more parolees on our streets, many of whom exist outside of the otherwise watchful eye of the state parole agency. There are simply too many ex-cons to keep track of, so, we end up with many "PALS" (parolees at large) plying our neighborhoods, looking to commit their next crime. I was recently informed that, in the coming months, some 3,500 early-release prisoners will be coming to Stanislaus County. It will take an extraordinary effort by the police and public, working together, to stem the impact of those releases. It will not be easy.

Having ended up in second place for the nation's highest auto theft rate in 2009 should be viewed as only the beginning of a more concerted effort to keep pushing the rate down further. It will require keeping a close eye on the court system, and the public must come forward with information relating to crimes. Information can be reported anonymously through the Crime Stoppers Program by calling 521-INFO. We also need to do what we can to keep the county-wide auto theft task force (STANCATT) fully staffed and, as a whole, the public needs to see auto thieves for what they really are - hardened and dangerous criminals - and then ensure that the criminal justice systems treats them accordingly.