Ben Boychuk

Viewpoints: Theft sheds light on consequences of realignment

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 - 8:26 am

Thirty seconds was all it took. Thirty seconds was all the kid needed.

At the end of it, I was calling out a license plate number as one barista frantically scribbled on her arm with a marker and another dialed 911. Then I watched helplessly as four young men in a white Ford sedan sped away with the new MacBook Pro I had purchased about three weeks before.

It happened so fast, it wasn't even apparent I'd been robbed until the kid was almost out the front door of the Starbucks. He hit the door so hard, the glass cracked.

I was busy typing an email. I had headphones on. I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings. It was a familiar space. I simply took my safety for granted.

It happened so fast, I didn't have time to ponder the wisdom of chasing down the thief. I'm 41 years old. He was maybe 19 or 20. What a sight that must have been for the half-dozen witnesses in the cafe as I tore after him, hurtling curses the whole way.

Turns out, I wasn't the only victim that afternoon of what's come to be called "Apple picking." Less than 10 minutes earlier, the same crew hit another Starbucks a couple of miles up the freeway. That time, they ripped some poor guy's iPad right out of his hands. Then they drove a mere 75 yards across the parking lot, barged into a Panera Bread Co., and stole somebody else's laptop.

Yeah, they were that brazen.

Thirty seconds was all it took. Thirty seconds cost me $1,700, about three weeks' worth of sound sleep, and my general sense of security.

Otherwise, I emerged totally unscathed.

The way the local newspapers reported it, in a few drab column inches, there were only two thefts. In fact, as I learned later from an employee, at least two dozen Starbucks locations throughout Southern California's Inland Empire had been hit within a few days. Matter of fact, a couple of days earlier, two other people had their devices – a phone and a laptop – grabbed from the same store where I was sitting that afternoon.

What are the police doing about all this? As much as they can, given the resources they have. In a news release, the Fontana Police Department advised people to "try to limit the public display of cell phones and other electronic items that may attract the attention of potential thieves."

That isn't good enough.

Trouble is, the state doesn't treat property crime quite as seriously as it did just a couple of years ago.

When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 ordered 37,000 felons released from California's state prisons to remedy what Justice Anthony Kennedy called "serious constitutional violations," the Legislature responded with a "realignment" of the state's felony sentencing and parole rules.

Nobody disputes that the prison system is an expensive mess. At the time of the high court ruling, California spent $48,000 per prisoner – more than double what Texas spends.

Why so pricey? Ask the state prison guards' union. But since lawmakers couldn't very well renege on a contract with one of their biggest campaign donors, they decided to weaken the penalties for theft.

According to the state attorney general's office, property crimes rose 4.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, marking the first increase in those crimes since 2004. That's a pretty sharp reversal over the 2.4 percent decline in burglaries, auto thefts and larceny that law enforcement recorded in the nine months before the sentencing changes went into effect.

Coincidence? Maybe. Or it could be that changing the rules changed the incentives for criminals, making property crimes more attractive as the rewards outweigh the risks. We'll know later this year, when the attorney general releases the 2012 crime stats.

About a week after my computer was swiped, a Fontana police investigator called to tell me he had some "subjects" in custody "on a related crime." Turned out, they were collared in a park stealing iPhones.

The officer was professional and courteous, but he wasn't making any promises. More than one cop that I've talked to in the past few weeks told me it's much harder to prosecute property crimes because of the changes in the law. They have bigger things to worry about.

One computer isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things, even if that computer belonged to me. But a dozen or more? Ultimately, it's for the local district attorney to decide.

For obvious reasons, I hope he throws the book at these punks. But it doesn't seem particularly just that a daylight theft with witnesses should be treated as "nonviolent" and "nonserious," even if it hadn't happened to me.

I realize, of course, that our justice system isn't in the business of righting every individual wrong. But sometimes the courts require criminals to make restitution to their victims. Great. Now tell me: How do I get back my peace of mind?

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