'Rob one house, get two free' - the burglar's creed
Burglary is not a crime against property, it's a personal attack on scared and vulnerable people, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30
The news that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is to introduce legislation to increase punishments for repeat burglars led to an interesting response from Newstalk, which decided to ask burglars themselves what they thought of the proposals.
What next - asking serial killers for their thoughts on the electric chair?
As it happened, Henry McKean's report was quite illuminating, not least for highlighting the scandal of concurrent sentences, on which Frances Fitzgerald has rightly set her sights. One interviewee had been convicted on three counts of burglary and one other charge, and was sentenced to "two-and-a-half years, two-and-a-half years, two-and-a-half years, all run into two and a half." Three offences. One sentence. Rob one house, get two free.
Concurrent sentences are meant to be imposed, according to one legal authority, "where the crime arises from the same incident". In practice, they're often handed down for a series of burglaries over a longer period of time. Lumping them together works entirely in the burglar's favour.
The reason burglary is treated more leniently is because it's still classified as a crime against property rather than against the person, despite all the evidence about the devastating effects on the individual. Courts still do not even seek victim impact statements in cases of burglary.
Criminal psychologist David Canter was one of the first, more than 30 years ago, to challenge this assumption. He showed how the burglar and his victim are in a relationship which he described as being like "intimate strangers". The home is not merely a sanctuary from the outside world, it's also an extension of self; it reflects our personalities.
Canter cites figures showing that 84pc report being emotionally affected by a burglary; 10pc suffered depression as a result; 11pc had panic attacks. Symptoms can include anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, a heightened sense of fear.
Victims become afraid to leave the house in case another burglary happens whilst they're out, but also afraid to stay in, in case it happens whilst they're there. Women are most seriously affected, with half comparing the experience of being burgled to rape. It's not about property. It's personal.
A serial burglar can tot up scores of victims before being caught; and when he is sent to prison, the sentence is generally so light that it practically guarantees scores more will be victims after he is released. One characteristic of burglars is that they carry on much longer than other criminals, well into their 40s and 50s, increasing the number of victims. One study found that some burglars even give up their jobs because it was interfering with their burgling.
Invariably it's the poor who are most affected, either in urban areas, or in remote rural areas where single dwellings with elderly occupants make easy targets. The poorest are also least likely to have home insurance, making the financial cost to them greater still.
Burglars are parasites, yet continue to attract disproportionate sympathy from self-styled social reformers who continue to see them as victims and are obsessed with proving that poverty causes crime. Cuts in social welfare are sometimes cited as a factor in crime levels. What about punitive cuts in wages which many have endured? Does that excuse middle class workers if they turn to crime?
Some argue that the high rate of recidivism among burglars is proof that prison doesn't work, but all it shows is that the current punishments are insufficient to be a deterrent. Burglars make rational choices, based on potential benefits and risks.
There's surprisingly little homegrown research in this area, but one report by UCD in 2001, An Econometric Analysis of Burglary in Ireland, found the major factors in crime were not economic, but rather the probability of being caught and the consequences of being apprehended.
It cited figures from the US which showed that only 7pc of burglaries resulted in arrest. Of that number, 87pc were prosecuted. Of those, 79pc were convicted. Of those, only 25pc are jailed. This represented a 1.2pc chance of being sent to prison for each act of burglary, with an average sentence of 13 months.
"Since she/he will escape punishment more than 98pc of the time, the expected 'cost' of each burglary to the burglar is only 4.8 days." The burglar then only has to calculate whether the goods likely to be taken in any crime are worth more to him than five days behind bars. Faced with that chance, a life of crime becomes the rational choice.
As the report says: "The goal of the criminal justice system is to raise expected costs of crime to criminals above the expected benefits."
That is exactly what we're failing to do right now, and why retired judge Michael Patwell said last week that criminals are "laughing" as they walk out of court because of an overuse of suspended sentences by judges.
He put it simply: "People are living in absolute fear. What you should do is toughen up the sentencing policy."
Judges have no discretion when it comes to offences committed on bail; consecutive sentences must be handed down. There should be a way of making sentences consecutive when it comes to multiple burglaries too, to reflect the impact crime has on victims.
Real victims, that is, not those who claim the label on behalf of criminals. Even Newstalk's ex con tried that one. Why do burglars do it? "Because we've no money, the country is broke," he declared.
That was another myth busted by the UCD report. "We were unable to find any robust effect from direct measures of labour market activity such as unemployment rates or wage levels." Burglars choose to commit crime. We could choose to punish them more severely for doing so. It's that simple.