I, for one, think newspapers are being rejuvenated by their current financial crisis. The old-fashioned, insular newsroom, with its disturbing status quo on crime reporting (defendants are victims of society; victims are society, and thereby guilty of something) is becoming a thing of the past.
Over the holiday weekend, the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran this must-read story by Bill Torpy, in which he examines the real costs of retail burglaries for small business owners:
Last week, [Dana] Spinola’s Midtown business — fab’rik, one of her three metro Atlanta stores — was broken into by one of the smash-and-grab burglary crews that have increasingly plagued city merchants. It was, she figures, the 15th break-in during that store’s seven years of business.
“At this point, we’re surprised they got in,” Spinola said. To thwart burglars she had installed unbreakable glass, alarms, sensors and gates, and hired in-store security.
“I’m hardened to it. It’s a $2,000 robbery, not a $40,000 robbery. You don’t call insurance on this level,” she said. Besides, she adds, “We’ve never had anything recovered.” . . .
An informal check of several businesses that have been burglarized in the past year found that several have gone under or are teetering.
“It could definitely put you under,” Spinola said. “It can break your spirit.”
The “vicious cycle” can become a “quality of life issue,” said Buckhead Coalition president Sam Massell. “We all pay for it with higher insurance rates. It hurts employment. It hurts the tax base. The mom and pop stores are valuable to the city.”
Early last month, thieves smashed through the window of the popular Blue Genes boutique near Lenox Square and made off with $100,000 in merchandise. It was the seventh break-in in eight years, Jennifer Arrendale, who owns the store with two sisters, said at the time.
“We lost everything,” she said.
Add these business losses, job losses, and extraordinary security expenses to the tab for our failure to impose consequences for committing crimes. Then consider the human toll on those who are risking their lives just by arriving at work in the morning or shutting down their stores at night. Anyone who has ever worked a cash register or turned out the lights in a stockroom at closing time knows what it feels like to suddenly sense a threatening vibe:
Wendy Jackson, owner of Signature 4 Men on Lenox Road and frequent crime victim, said the thieves are savvy enough to surveil the businesses before they strike.
“They scope out the stores when the jeans come in, the high-end jackets, the sunglasses. They want to pinpoint where they’ll go [when they break in],” she said. “It’s out of control, out of control.”
Jackson has engaged in an arms race with Atlanta’s punks: They throw a rock through the window, she installs steel gates, so the next time they drive a truck through the window. She puts in a buzzer to screen customers who enter, so the thieves send a respectable-looking fellow to the door. He gets buzzed in, “then they bum rush the store,” she said, and run out with thousands of dollars of merchandise.
She now keeps less inventory, can no longer obtain insurance, works seven days a week to cut labor costs and would love to get out of her lease and the business. “These guys will ruin your life,” she said.
Last year, Lafayette Brazil’s boutique on Peachtree Road was hit by a robbing crew that pepper sprayed workers. Two men arrested in connection with the robbery at Brazil’s and a similar one at a Decatur boutique, Kaleidoscope, are still being held in Fulton County jail awaiting trial.
After 14 years at the site, Brazil closed. “After a while, you can’t keep getting robbed,” he said.
Kaleidoscope’s owner, Camille Wright, like many other retailers, complained that the penalties for and prosecution of smash-and-grab artists are light. “The only reason [authorities] went after the guys at my store is because there was an assault involved,” she said.
And if there had not been an assault? Let’s tell the truth about the court system. The thieves would get quick probation, or nolo prosequi, or their first or fifth first-time-offender free passes out the door. Maybe a plea to a lesser offense, a drug charge, which might seem undesirable but actually opens doors to community-based treatment and approbation from those who view all drug offenders as victims of society. This is the new normal in Atlanta, yet it is not particularly new. Despite all the headlines screaming about our “Prison/Industrial Complex,” recidivist felons have been strolling out of jail with a slap on the wrist for forty years now. Such as, this one.
Yet in some places, politicians are considering lowering the bar even further by making retail burglary a misdemeanor offense in order to save money. In reality, they needn’t bother: prosecutors already can’t afford to prosecute retail burglaries and other crimes, so, as shop owner Camille Wright rightly observes, most cases of retail theft are simply pleaded away to nothing or dropped:
The problem got so bad last year that Atlanta police formed a task force to nab the so-called “Blue Jean Bandits,” who rampaged through high-end fashion stores and carried off tons of high-priced denim. Criminals employ a wide range of methods, including smashing windows of closed stores, driving trucks through protective gates and even overpowering retail clerks in the middle of the day.
The spree seemed to die down late last year but picked up again this spring.
“It’s back with a vengeance,” said Sgt. Archie Ezell, who heads the police department’s retail theft task force. He said the department made 32 arrests in “smash” cases last year but more criminals seem to be rushing in to take their place. A spokeswoman for the Fulton County District Attorney’s said 35 smash- and-grab cases have been indicted, 15 have resulted in convictions and 16 are still open.
“Kids are being recruited for this; they’re 13, 14 and 15 years old,” he said. “They are told nothing will happen to them if they are caught.”
I’d be interested to know the sentences for each of those 15 convictions.
Store owners ought to start reaching out to Atlanta’s court-watchers whenever thieves get caught. That may help to slow down the revolving jail doors.
There is no justification for people being forced to live this way. It’s madness. When you read a newspaper article like this one, and hear the voices of crime victims who are perfectly aware that the system has failed to protect them, you have to ask how it is that we have gotten to this crazy place.
Allow me to introduce you to the source of the problem.
The source of the problem of not-removing-offenders-from-the-streets is something I like to call the Academic/Activist/Advocacy Complex (AAAC), an incredibly powerful network of “institutes” and “researchers” and professors and professional protesters and policy makers all united in the goal of ensuring that people do not go to prison when they commit crimes. These people believe that incarceration itself is not only a crime but the only type of crime that matters. They do not believe in deterrence. They do not believe in personal responsibility. They believe that the thugs who just drove a car through the front of your store for the third time this year should not be punished for doing this, or even prevented from doing it again, but should be “understood” and offered sympathy and job training and other types of financial and emotional support.
These people despise crime victims, because acknowledging the reality of victimization makes it (temporarily) harder for them to engage in their fantasy life, in which they are heroes and heroines “uplifting” poor, misunderstood criminals. Browbeating the rest of us with their virtue.
It is a dangerous indulgence. It is also a lucrative career choice.
Luckily, sentencing policy is set by the states, not the federal government, for the Justice Department is now firmly in the hands of the AAAC.
And an enormous showdown is brewing between state legislatures that try to hold the line on crime (though they’re not enthusiastic about paying for it) and the AAAC. It will be played out directly on the backs of homeowners and business owners who are already reeling from the economic downturn. It has been played on ordinary citizens’ backs for some forty years now, but the battle is about to accelerate, fueled by the need to cut state budgets and by stimulus money being offered by the feds for certain offender-centered projects (prisoner re-entry, community sentencing pilot programs, sentencing “reform”).
Interestingly, many newspapers are no longer firmly in the AAAC corner on this fight. Even the New York Times has begun to show cracks in its reflexive pro-criminal preferences.
When you see the following institutions in the news, being quoted on their research, know that they are dedicated to keeping criminals on the streets, at any price to you and me:
The Pew Center on the States, Corrections and Public Safety (Pew Center Charitable Trust)
Families Against Mandatory Minimums
The Vera Institute of Justice
The Sentencing Project
The Justice Policy Institute
Central to the AAAC ideology is the belief that incarcerating criminals is a bad thing because it dis-unites communities. But what happens to communities when decent people live under siege? This question is answered, with dismaying clarity, at the end of Torpy’s article:
[B]lue jeans, jackets and sunglasses are quickly sold on the street at a fraction of the retail price. It’s an operation the public tacitly supports. “People are like, ‘It’s too bad for you, good for me,’ ” [store owner Camille] Wright said. “People have no guilt” in buying goods they know are stolen.
Adrene Ashford, owner of Adrene Boutique in the Castleberry Hill area south of downtown, has seen a resurgence in crime. Her store was hit twice in April. . . Ashford said a distrust of customers has crept into her life. “You don’t even know how mad it makes you. They come in the store. They smile in your face, flirt with you and then come back to rob you.”