Repeat offenders a frustration for Utah business owners
Steve Regan has had his share of run-ins with Utah criminals.
The Salt Lake City businessman, who owns two convenience stores, bears a scar on his leg from a beer thief who bit him during a tussle at one of his stores. He no longer accepts checks, but has a thick wad of bounced ones in his briefcase. He and his employees have been robbed, been victims of shoplifting, and his businesses have been burglarized. So he's frustrated when he sees criminals slip through the system, often with minimal punishment.
"These people who have been in trouble with the law, once, twice, three times haven't learned," Regan said. "To them it's a cakewalk because they get three hots and a cot [in jail]. They get to see their friends, and they get to go out and do it again."
Since January 2010, theft by deception cases have, on average, comprised about 6 percent of all cases filed each year in 3rd District Court, according to Utah court statistics. Theft by deception is essentially stealing from a business, whether it's pawning a stolen item or paying for something with a forged check.
A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of cases filed in Utah's 3rd District Court between March and May of 2012 found that 162 people were charged with the crime. Of those, about 46 percent had three or more previous criminal convictions in district court, not including traffic violations.
An estimated 12 percent had 10 or more criminal convictions. Few individuals had served any prison time even though many of their offenses would allow for it.
Authorities admit many of Utah's career criminals know how to work the system to their advantage. In a state where prison and jail beds are at a premium, many of these non-violent offenders are gambling they won't be incarcerated.
"Some of these people get to the point where we say we're going to use that bed to give the businesses of Salt Lake County a reprieve from that person," said Jeff Hall, deputy Salt Lake County district attorney. "[But] you have to be very careful how many of those beds you use for that person. That's a bed we can't put a violent offender in."
Jeff Payne, a Salt Lake City police detective, said many Utah property offenders find a niche and keep committing crimes until they get caught. Once sentenced, they'll often disappear only to resurface in other cities when they become desperate for money to feed drug or alcohol habits.
"[The] career criminals, they're going to do it no matter what, and they know it's just another day of doing business," Payne said. "They will keep doing it until they get caught. We'll pull [those people's] drug histories and see a lot of drug paraphernalia or possession [cases]."
"A lot of pain" • Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the criminal justice system sees many repeat offenders and not just those who are stealing from businesses. Some of the system's "frequent fliers" have had several thousand contacts with authorities, he said.
"The volume can sometimes overwhelm you, as well, just the sheer volume," Gill said.
Chance L. Robinson's latest brush with the law was preceded by 25 convictions during the past 11 years that ranged from weapons to controlled-substance violations.
But those prior convictions didn't stop Robinson, 31, from writing more than $3,200 in bad checks using stolen checks and stolen personal information at businesses around Murray, according to court records.
Robinson has since pleaded guilty to several charges and in September was ordered to serve a year in the county jail. Salt Lake County jail officials said he was released from the facility in October for time served.
"The unfortunate thing â¦ is the number of people this affects and how negatively it affects these people," said Murray police spokesman Kenny Bass of Robinson's case.
Every case requires varying hours of police work and can be costly for victims in terms of time and money.
"It's a lot of work. A lot of victims. A lot of pain [for victims]. You're hoping the [suspect] ends up paying for his crime," Bass said.
A balancing act • Prosecutors say the cost of pursuing such cases must be balanced with public safety.
"Part of the issue is not the number of offenses but what is the base cause of leading those offenses to occur," Gill said. "If you give me 3,000 jail beds, I can fill those up. The question is, at what cost and what we're getting back in return."
He said just locking up someone for six months won't fix the problem because when that person is released, "within the next week, they're going to be re-offending."
Prosecutors say they try to take into account whether there's an underlying factor, including a mental health problem or drug addiction, before determining if prison is the only way.
"[We need] smart prosecution and therapeutic justice," Gill said. "I think we need a paradigm shift of making these treatment programs more robustly available."
But prosecutors acknowledge that not everyone can be rehabilitated.
"Sometimes you just can't get there," said Hall. "They've learned to work the system and learned they can get away with this thing. We have to take each [case] individually and balance the resources. And I'm sympathetic â¦ I'm sure the businesses are tired of these people coming in and committing these thefts by deceptions, shoplifting."
Business owner Regan said he doesn't blame the judges, police or prisons for the problem. He blames Utah's lawmakers and himself.
"The problem is the Legislature because they do not appropriate enough funds for the situation," he said. "Who's fault is that? Mine, yours because we're not getting the message out."
A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of theft by deception cases filed in Utah's 3rd District Court between March and May of 2012 found that 162 people were charged with the crime. Of those, about 12 percent had 10 or more convictions, not including traffic violations; 46 percent had three or more convictions; and 54 percent had two or fewer.