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Burglars barely out of puberty a growing concern

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POSTED March 4, 2010 2:34 a.m.

Michael Quilici is in the process of bringing his neighbors together to form a Neighborhood Watch group.

A number of homes in his rural neighborhood – his included – have been hit by daytime burglars.

At first, he believed the culprits were either those stealing due to the troubled economic times or those who may prey off others to feed their drug habit.

Imagine what his reaction must have been when deputies told him the likely culprits were school kids.

Although thefts driven by drugs are still prevalent and crimes committed due to lack of money – mostly by transients who have a tendency to rip off copper and other items to recycle or low lifes who rip off items from yards and porches to sell at what are often perpetual garage sales – are still a big concern, the fastest growing category of burglars are kids.

Last year a ring of kids – many as young as 12 – were hitting homes throughout Manteca under the leadership of a 17-year-old. The loot that the teen burglars took was in excess of $200,000. The leader was so brazen he even volunteered his name to a reporter when he was photographed being arrested.

He figured he was invincible - and why not? If you think there are no consequences in San Joaquin County for adults who commit property crimes and such due to an overcrowded jail, juvenile criminals are usually out of the street even quicker.

The reason is simple. San Joaquin County has roughly the same number of beds at juvenile hall that it did 40 years ago. That means unless you are a violent offender under 18 you’re not going to be detained very long.

Manteca Police know this all too well from a recent incident where they were trying to tie some kids to burglaries other than what they were charged with. Within just a day or so, they discovered they were responsible for stealing guns and ammo during another residential burglary. But while they were on their way to juvenile hall to execute an arrest warrant, they had already been released.

It doesn’t matter if they are serial burglars. Unlike adults it doesn’t make a difference if the accused are juveniles.

In all of the cry and hue over the county jail, juvenile hall has been glossed over.

It is kind of ironic as one would think to stem crime – or at least try to reduce the chance of recidivism – that being tough on juveniles would be a wise move.

Instead, they become more arrogant and brazen knowing law enforcement is virtually powerless. All they have to do is make sure they don’t commit an act of violence and they’re free to steal.

After the 17 year-old’s photo appeared in the Bulletin, we got more than a few calls from people who said that was horrible and that we were not giving the kid a fair shake. At least two people said we should be ashamed of ourselves.

However, a few days later a woman who had seen the photo in the paper called police when she saw the 17-year-old and other kids hanging around her street. Police found them with burglary tools. There were no break-ins that day. Eventually, age caught up with the teen. When he turned 18 and was arrested for burglary he spent time at the jail.

The best defense we all have against crime is watching out for each other. If you see something amiss – even if it involves kids – that call to police goes a long way to putting pressure on criminals and keeping neighborhoods safer. Of course it also helps to know your neighbors a bit better than most of us do.

Quilici and his neighbors are taking the right step.

The only way we are going to keep pressure on criminals is for us to act in unison as neighbors. All it takes is arming ourselves with a higher awareness of our neighborhoods so we know when we see something amiss.

We can’t expect police to be our personal security guards. We have to take an active role in protecting our neighborhoods. The biggest way that we can do that is serving as the eyes and ears of law enforcement.

Manteca Police Chief Dave Bricker’s observation  that “criminals are like water as they take the path of least resistance” is absolutely true as his other favorite line that “a community has as much crime as it is willing to tolerate.”

We should not let criminals – regardless of their age – get away because we believe it is simply easier to not be connected with our neighbors.

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