Tougher Penalties for Vehicle Break-ins

It’s a crime that usually gets first time offenders a slap on the wrist. Law enforcement agencies here in Houston and across Texas want lawmakers to change the law and send auto burglars to state jail the first time they’re convicted. Pat Hernandez has the story.

With 90 break-ins reported to Houston police every day, vehicle burglaries are the most common crime in the Bayou City. There was a time when it was a serious crime.

“Burglary of a motor vehicle used to be a felony. The Legislature downgraded it over a decade ago.”

Craig Ferrell is chief counsel for the Houston Police Department. He says it’s not unusual for criminals to commit hundreds of burglaries in a single night.

“Along with that came a technological revolution to where people started having laptops, and iPods and iPhones, and technology that is very valuable, and they forget and leave it their car where it’s visible. And so those two things coupled together has made this the number one driver of crime.”

Ferrell says it’s easy for this crime of opportunity to become violent when a vehicle owner walks up to a burglary in progress.

“One of the sad things is criminals know criminal penalties better than the citizens they victimize, and so they know how to play the system, and avoid the longer sentences and the more challenging crimes.”

West Houston State Representative Jim Murphy has authored House Bill 1063 which would provide for mandatory jail time for career criminals who commit misdemeanors.

“In west Houston, we’ve seen a very significant increase in property crimes, particularly home burglaries, and because those criminals are nonviolent, they spend almost no time in jail, come out and literally commit the same crime and get arrested, sometimes by the same police officers.”

His bill would require repeat misdemeanor offenders to serve mandatory jail time of 6-months to a year. Murphy says he realizes critics of the plan say Texas cannot afford the additional costs of putting these people in jail because
of the budget crisis in Austin.

“Nobody wants to spend money they don’t have to spend, but I think keeping people safe, and keeping these very few repeat offenders — these career criminals — off the street is how the citizens want their money spent.”

Murphy and HPD Chief counsel Craig Ferrell both admit that the concerns about financial impact to local counties will make it a challenge to pass any legislation that involves money.

“In these tough economic times, this is gonna be something that will take some courage, but the cost of not doing it far outstrips the cost of passing this legislation.”