A state senator has proposed a plan to incarcerate more people in a misguided attempt to reduce car thefts.
A state senator has proposed a plan to incarcerate more people in a misguided attempt to reduce car thefts, another example of a short-sighted carceral mindset that wrongly promotes jails and prisons as the solution to society’s problems. There are already serious consequences for car theft, and Senator Jeremy Cooney’s overbroad bill fails to acknowledge the devastating implications of pretrial detention and the root causes of crime and instances of harm.
Getting caught with a stolen car is not like a traffic ticket, as media coverage of the bill implies. Criminal possession of stolen property above $1,000 is a felony that can result in a person spending up to four years in prison, a very serious consequence. Supporters of the bill have provided no evidence beyond speculation that people repeatedly steal cars because they know bail will not be set.
Senator Cooney and his supporters are not being honest with the public. The current laws make clear that, if that hypothetical person were to exist, a judge is currently able to set bail. Rollbacks to New York’s bail reform laws created a “harm plus harm” provision which allows judges to set bail on charges that would otherwise be bail ineligible when a person has an open case and is rearrested, and each case involves harm to an identifiable person or property. The law makes clear that desk appearances tickets are included in the definition of an “open case”. So if someone were caught in possession of a stolen car and received a desk appearance ticket under current law, that person could have bail set if they are arrested again for possession of a stolen car or any other alleged crime that involves harm to a person or property.
The bill is another example of policymakers believing the only solution to a problem is to put more people in jail. Not only is this solution unimaginative, it is also destined to fail. Senator Cooney’s proposal only applies to people 18 and older. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office reports that the average age of someone caught in a stolen car is 17. Even accepting for a moment the flawed premise that the solution to car thefts is more incarceration, Senator Cooney’s bill does not even affect most of the people arrested for the alleged crime. And many of the people whom the bill ostensibly does affect – adults who are allegedly repeatedly stealing cars — may already have bail set by a judge through the “harm plus harm” provision.
The carceral logic behind the bill wrongfully assumes that incapacitating people for alleged crimes is a feasible solution to address the real problem of increasing car thefts. “If this legislation passes, at least there will be a bail referral to a judge and a judge may place bail which holds more accountability, and maybe even temporary incarceration,” said Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter. “With that, we can take advantage of that temporary incarceration to make some intervention.” Pretrial incarceration is not some sort of adult timeout that magically stops crime. It can increase the likelihood of recidivism, produces housing insecurity, reduces the earning power of people who are arrested, and can be deadly.
The root causes of increasing car thefts are complex and require more thorough and imaginative solutions than putting more people in jail. Mary Coffey, a Rochester-area resident, told a reporter legislators might address “poor education…high poverty rates [and] a lack of economic opportunity.” to tackle the problem of car thefts. “It’s a lot of frustration out there with people and poverty,” she said. “I’m not justifying their acts: Wrong is wrong. But we’re all to blame and our government’s to blame for the condition that many of our people are in.”