14 June 2007

Habitual Burglars and DNA

For all the overall focus on shifting prison resources to where they are needed to retrain violent offenders, it is worth recalling the impact that habitual criminals can have, something revealed in Denver where the police have spent $150,000 to use DNA analysis to catch burglars. According to the police:
After Denver police nabbed a man who later admitted to more than 1,000 burglaries, the burglary rate in West Washington Park plunged about 40 percent . . . . Cases where DNA is present also draw higher sentences for habitual burglars. The average sentence for burglars linked by DNA is 12 years, compared with six months without it. . . . In Denver, more than 40 habitual burglars have been caught since the program from the National Institute of Justice began in November 2005 . . . And each habitual burglar commits about 243 burglaries per year[.]

This may be press release journalism on the Denver Post’s part (they didn't even bother to identify the West Washington Park burglar by name), uncritically taken from one point of view, but when a single arrest reduces burglaries 40% in my neighborhood, I pay attention. The fact that my son’s bike was stolen off the front porch, that I’ve had my car radio stolen a couple of times, and that I know someone who has experienced multiple burglaries in my neighborhood contribute to my interest. Jessica Centers at Westword did an in depth investigation of the story -- the burglars in my neighborhood were David Weller and his wife Dina Weller. David got 36 years in prison, and his wife was awaiting sentencing when the Westword story went to print in September of 2006.

Presumably, the higher sentences are because the offenders can be better linked to multiple incidents, and their past criminal records. Westword also came up with a juicy tidbit about the workings of the national FBI database of DNA called CODIS:

A study in Florida . . . found that 52 percent of individuals with CODIS profiles who had been convicted of murder or sexual assault had prior convictions for burglary.

Spending $150,000 to prevent 10,000 burglaries a year seems like a no brainer.

Also, unlike most programs designed to get tough on crime, this doesn’t have a strong civil liberties downside. If your DNA shows up in a house of a burglary victim (or even more persuasive multiple houses of burglary victims), with no good reason, or property in your house has lots of DNA on it from a burglary victim whom you claim that you’ve never met, the odds are overwhelming that you are guilty. Eye witness and confession evidence is far less reliable, and for better or for worse, I trust the guys in the CSI department to be more honest than the guy who arrested a suspect in the middle of the night.

Something on the order of 95% of people who are arrested either plea guilty or are convicted of some crime. But, the vast majority of mid-level felonies never result in an arrest. Burglary has the lowest clearance rate of any national crime index crime, with just 12.7% of burglaries "cleared" (i.e. solved) in 2001, according to the FBI.

Even a 100% conviction rate for people who are arrested doesn’t have much of a deterrent effect if you almost never catch anyone committing the crime. Philosophically, this program is similar to last legislative sessions proposal to eliminate the death penalty in Colorado so that the money saved could be used to pursue cold murder cases.

No comments: