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The $47,102 bargain of incarceration

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POSTED June 18, 2014 1:09 a.m.

The Vandals’ sacking and looting of Rome in 455 was amateur hour compared to what the Meth Heads are doing to Manteca.

Instead of breaking into temples as their predecessors did in ancient times, today’s meth vandals are opening concrete conduit vaults and ripping up buried power lines.

It has gotten so bad at Woodward Park that the city has resorted to installing a high tech motion detector on a 1,500-foot long buried copper wire that runs the irrigation system. The detector triggers an alarm at the Manteca Police dispatch center whenever the pipe is tampered with. It is far from  overreacting. The copper wire has been stolen twice at a cost of $35,000 to replace each time.

In May, copper thieves that authorities say are driven primarily by the desire to buy more drugs with the poison of choice being meth, caused in excess of $8,000 in damages overnight to the Lincoln Park field. It included the loss of $3,000 in copper wire.

Last year, Manteca suffered $50,000 in copper wire losses from street lights where vandals pulled wire from the bases of pole.

City officials have put the loss to municipal taxpayers from copper wire theft at well over $350,000 in the past seven years.

The copper theft problem isn’t just in Manteca. Caltrans last year sustained more than $2 million in copper wire losses from vandals who pulled wire from street lights and ramp metering lights within state freeway right-of-ways.

Since the federal courts have determined its cruel and unusual punishment to warehouse too many criminals in prison, relatively low-level crimes such as copper theft are hard to punish let alone prosecute.

The only effective deterrent is getting those responsible convicted and off the street.

We are told even if there was space in prison, it isn’t cost effective.

Thieves in Manteca last year stole property valued at $4.5 million, based on Manteca Police statistics. Based on statewide figures, that is on the low side for communities the size of Manteca.

The figure reflects market value and not replacement cost. It also doesn’t include the cost of repairing property damage that occurs during the commission of crimes. Nor does it take into account other expenses crime victims absorb such as time and money spent to recover from identity theft.

Assume that the real cost of theft in Manteca is closer to $6 million a year.

It cost $47,102 in 2009 to incarcerate one prisoner for a year once all costs are factored in, according to a study conducted by the California Legislative Analyst’s office.

And while prison costs have slowed down, let’s assume that today the cost is $50,000 per prisoner.

For the amount that property crimes in Manteca are costing everyone each year we could cover the tab of locking up 120 people.

The odds are crime would drop substantially given the general rule in law enforcement is 90 percent of crimes are committed by 10 percent of the criminals.

It is fair to ask whether spending $6 million on basically locking up criminals is effective. But at the same time is it effective for a community to be bled for $6 million a year whether it is through copper theft or vehicle break-ins?

It would be nice to spend the $6 million lost each year on something else besides paying the price for criminal acts or locking criminals up.

Rehabilitation or funding ways to steer people away from a life of crime may help reduce criminal activity. Such efforts work to a degree.

The bottom line, though, can’t be ignored. Law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have to subsidize criminal activity nor should they feel unsafe in their home or the community.

The state of California’s penal system has meant more and more low-level crimes are going unpunished or are being punished in an insignificant manner. As a result you can pass all the laws you want imposing fines and jail time for everything from copper theft and vandalism to launching illegal fireworks but it isn’t going to make much of a difference.

The consequences of copper theft are just one of a growing list of injustices Californians are going to have to pay the price for because our elected leaders lack the will and/or the stomach to overhaul the prison system including finding new ways to warehouse persistent lawbreakers regardless of how low-level the crime.

If all we can do is warehouse and not rehabilitate most criminals then at least we’ve reduced the hits on our collective pocket books. That hit last year in Manteca alone was $6 million. And that was only for property crime. Toss in medical, lost work, and other costs from violent crime and locking up criminals at $47,102 starts to look like a bargain.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.

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