An example that will likely be with us for a while is the new law making theft of metal wire a state jail felony - one of House Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Aaron Peña's many pet enhancements last session. Peña's bill made stealing copper, aluminum or bronze wire a felony regardless of the value of the wire! But the law apparently failed to scare away would-be copper thieves as its proponents predicted.
I say that because on Wednesday afternoon, the lights went out in the Grits household, shutting down all computer equipment (I lost a half-finished blog post, actually), lights, washing machine, and everything else in the house. Looking outside, I quickly realized the whole neighborhood had gone dark.
The blackout just lasted a couple of hours, but it wasn't till yesterday evening I learned the cause: A thief electrocuted himself pretty severely trying to steal copper wire from an electrical substation. He got zapped with 80,000 Volts, if you can imagine- about 7,300 homes including mine lost their power.
In committee hearings over this bill last year, Peña and supporters said the legislation would "send a message" that dissuaded copper theft. But who has received it?
Instead of passing laws like this one that eat up more prison beds, perhaps that money would have been better spent renting a billboard because this fellow didn't get the "message." An energy company spokesman told the Statesman:
"Unfortunately, this incident will serve as a type of illustration of what can potentially occur," Clark said. "It's a pretty difficult problem when a person is willing to totally disregard their safety and go into a substation because, generally speaking, the people who are doing this type of thing are not knowledgeable and could not come close to recognizing the potential dangers."A significant percentage of scrap metal thieves also number among the homeless population, which brings with it a whole 'nuther range of barriers to preventing these thefts. That's important not because it excuses bad behavior, but because it provides information that helps craft a solution. Obviously I don't want my electricity going off because of copper thieves; but at the same time, as a practical matter neither did the "enhanced" penalty prevent that from happening.
If someone is a) uneducated, and b) willing to risk their lives, why would legislators think jacking up the penalty to a felony (as opposed to more vigorously enforcing misdemeanor statutes), would do anything but give them "three hots and a cot" for a longer period on the taxpayers' dime?
That doesn't make anyone safer, but it sure helps fill the prisons faster, particularly when you "enhance" a misdemeanor to a felony, as Chairman Peña's bill did. A better solution in my view is to focus on vendors who purchase scrap metal illicitly. (See the final item in this post.) Dry up the black market on the demand side, and they'll soon have little reason to steal.
I don't know what the ultimate solution(s) to copper theft will turn out to be - probably in the long term, shifting to cheaper wire made of blended metals that don't have the same resale value. (Camera systems, touted in the Statesman clip, require extra police resources for rapid response or they're pretty worthless in such cases.)
There's a decent chance that the homeless guy or drug addict who risks their life to steal copper already have enough obstacles to success in life without adding a felony beef; it's not like copper thieves couldn't be punished - with up to a year in jail - under the law as it was before. Criminal laws work best when they focus on outcomes in the real world, not the "message" some pol claims they'll send on the campaign trail.