Opinion

Felonies are down in King County

Political

Columnist

Here’s some happy news: most felonies are going down in King County. The one glaring exception: burglary, where the increase, while small, defies this downward trend.

Why is this happening? Well, when you raise the cost of doing something, fewer people will do it. And when you reduce the cost of doing something, more people will do it. Burglary in King County is a good example.

First off, most burglaries – in fact more than two thirds in King County - are never solved. Your odds of getting away are pretty good. Furthermore, most burglars know what they’re doing. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg reports that most burglaries are committed by professionals, sometimes acting alone but increasingly in burglary rings.

And our punishment for burglary is lenient to the point of absurdity.

If a burglar breaks into your house and steals something, he will receive no more than nine months in jail and as little as 90 days. That’s assuming that his crime isn’t pleaded down to something less serious.

Suppose that burglar breaks into your house a second time? For a second conviction he can receive a year in prison, but remember, your legislators automatically lopped 50 percent off burglary sentences to save money, so 12 months suddenly becomes a six-month sentence. What about a third home burglary conviction? Just 15 to 20 months, again with half automatically reduced. Not until his fourth conviction will a burglar risk spending more than a year behind bars. The legislature allows 50 percent reductions even for repeat offenders. Nice work, Olympia.

And if you think that’s bad, you ought to see how we sentence juveniles.

If a juvenile is caught and convicted of home burglary, even if he committed several of them, he can serve as little as no time at all for his first conviction (the most he’ll get is 30 days). If he gets out and does it again the sentencing range, unbelievably, is the same: zero to 30 days in juvie. Even with a third conviction for home burglary, he’s looking at about four months in juvenile detention.

Still wondering why a growing number of criminals find burglary appealing?

Satterberg points out that a small number of burglars commit a vast, disproportionate amount of the burglaries. He’s trying to pull together local police agencies to identify who they are, target them and get them off the streets. But arresting them is just one part of solving the puzzle. The second part is keeping them behind bars for a longer period of time. Home burglary is a serious crime. It instantly shatters your sense of being safe there. If we believe it’s a serious crime, we need to increase the costs of committing that crime. Critics will say that it sticks the public with a bigger bill for cops, courts and prison space. Then again, it might save some money by deterring criminals from breaking into people’s houses in the first place. One thing’s for certain. Our current sentencing laws are doing just the opposite.

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