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Is Escalating Crime Altering the Social Contract?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Linda-Marie Sundstrom, Mark Kling & Jim Bishop 
September 9, 2022

From shoplifting to vehicle thefts to burglaries, we hear about theft-related crimes every day on the nightly news. And now there is a new crime epidemic…the theft of catalytic converters stolen from cars in parking lots across the country. This costly and destructive theft has increased by more than 300 percent in one year and has left victims paying up to $3,000 for each repair. In August 2022, a single organized crime ring in Oregon was responsible for the theft of 44,000 catalytic converters with an estimated street value of more than $22 million. 

With theft on the rise in our country, who can stop it? Do we believe there exists a social contract with the government to afford protection to its citizens? Or does the responsibility of safeguarding personal possessions lie with the individual owners?  

Catalytic Converter Theft 

A catalytic converter is located underneath cars to prevent pollution and contains valuable metals such as rhodium, platinum and palladium. Thieves crawl under a car and can steal a catalytic converter—which has a street value of $500 or more per each unit—in less than 60 seconds. Removing the catalytic converter not only causes the car to make an incredibly loud roar, but can also cause the driver to be exposed to 20 times the amount of carbon monoxide—endangering the safe operations of the vehicle.  Victims are faced with repairs ranging from $1,000-$3,000. 

There are currently limited ways for individual car owners to secure their exposed catalytic converters, which (once stolen) are generally untraceable. The thieves can remove the catalytic converter in less than 60 seconds and flee the scene hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars richer, all while the victims are shopping for groceries, going to a doctor’s appointment or exercising at the gym. 

Social Contracts

Traditionally the term social contract refers to a system of agreements between the ruled (the citizens) and the rulers (the government)—defining the rights and duties of each. In the United States, the first duty of the government is to afford protection to its citizens. In turn, citizens agree to abide by the laws set forth by the legislative branch. Using the catalytic converter thefts as a framework, we can begin to explore the larger issue of the social contract that exists between government and citizens to maintain safe communities. If the citizens believe that the government is failing to afford them protection, and fear that more brazen crimes may continue to escalate, what are the inevitable impacts on the social contract?

Public Sector

The government plays a pivotal role in maintaining safety in our communities. The government’s legislative branch makes laws to protect citizens and their property, the executive/administrative branch enforces and prosecutes those laws, and the judicial branch imposes sentencing to punish offenders. These actions are intended to serve as deterrents to crime and afford protection to citizens and their property. 

One deterrent for crime is the increased presence of law enforcement throughout communities.  However, recent trends to defund the police in some communities have limited the ability of officers to patrol the streets—resulting in diminished deterrents to prevent or investigate criminal acts.     

In some jurisdictions, elected District Attorneys have directed their prosecutors to avoid charging numerous types of crime. New York implemented a No Cash Bail policy that releases alleged offenders back onto the streets. One person in New York has been arrested-and-released for crimes more than 88 times since 2020. How many people suffered and were victimized by this one person?    

Private Sector

If the government cannot, or will not, protect its citizens from crime, individuals may feel forced to protect themselves and their property. In the case of catalytic converter thefts, individuals currently struggle to find ways to protect their vehicles. Feeling they may be victimized at any time, citizens may feel compelled to take safety into their own hands. 

In the late 1970s, community members founded the Guardian Angels to patrol the New York subways because the police were unable to protect the citizens. Today, community members may feel the need to create new groups to patrol their own streets to protect against current theft or violence. If government policies continue to fail, and crime continues to escalate, will communities turn to vigilantism as their only alternative for safety and protection, or will government turn to oppressive totalitarian measures to stop the escalation? 

Conclusion

If the social contract with government no longer affords protection to its citizens, communities may begin to seek alternatives to protect themselves, their families and their property. This form of anarchy could permanently destroy the fabric of society in the United States. To restore the social contract between government and citizens, policies need to be rigorously analyzed based on unbiased, measurable outcomes related to crime, and must avoid being swayed by political opinions. Although most agree the criminal justice system is in need of reform, policy outcomes must be evaluated for the impact they have on victims, offenders and society at large.


Author: Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President.  She worked for 20 years in local government and has taught in Master of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades.  She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

Author: Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

Author: Professor Jim Bishop has been teaching law for the past 42 years and is currently a faculty member at California Baptist University’s Criminal Justice Department.  He has been a licensed attorney in the State of California since 1975 and practiced law for 15 years, before becoming a judicial officer for Riverside County Superior Court, primarily serving on a Criminal Calendar. Email: [email protected]

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