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Burglar, Alarmed: What Do You Think?

Not long ago I heard about something unusual that happened in a suburb of Washington. The people involved were still trying to figure out how they felt about it -- and, indeed, what the legal ramifications might be -- and so they didn't want to speak to me in detail. It's an interesting story, though, and I'm curious how you'd react if it happened to you. Here's what happened:

A homeowner returned to find that his house had been broken into and items had been stolen. The same thing had happened at at least one other house in the neighborhood. The word went out on the neighborhood message group that there was a burglar about and to make sure houses were locked and valuables were out of view.

Then a curious thing happened: A few days later trash bags showed up on the doorsteps of the burgled houses. Inside were the stolen belongings. It was as if the victims had been visited by the Burglary Fairy.

Apparently the alleged thief was a juvenile whose parents had discovered the crime. They made him return the stolen items -- and write letters of apology. So, my question: Is that what you'd call a happy ending?

On the one hand, the victims got their stuff back. At a time when some parents would turn a blind eye, these parents forced the juvenile to take responsibility for his actions. They were more concerned with the health of the neighborhood than covering up for their son.

On the other hand, the victims have to live with the knowledge that someone -- a neighbor, no less -- was in their houses and stole their stuff. They have to replace shattered windows and broken locks. A letter of apology isn't going to erase that.

Also, we might think it's nice to sidestep the criminal justice system, but is that what should happen here? Should the victims press charges? If the juvenile is sincerely chastened, would throwing the book at him just succeed in hardening him? Might he think, "See what I get for trying to do the right thing?"

Would letting him off make him think he'd gotten away with something? And are the victims owed a bit of justice? What do you think?

By John Kelly  |  March 26, 2009; 9:06 AM ET
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I think they should go thru the justice system, however, if the teen pays for the damaged windows, locks etc. and continues to show remorse, I think the victims(?) should support the teen in court and ask for some form of probation. That way, if the teen seems to lose interest and does not follow through, bam!, the justice system would be in the wings waiting to ensure follow through. As far as knowing that someone in their neighborhood was in their houses and had stolen from them, I think true remorse would go a long way toward inspiring forgiveness and reminding everyone of the dumb things they did as teens and got away with. If, however, the teen isn't really remorseful--throw the book at him (or her)!

Posted by: talleyl | March 26, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

This teenager needs to be arrested and charged. Even if he gets probation it's important that a record be created. Since it's unlikely that this was the first crime this person committed there needs to be a record so if he is arrested again the police won't let him off thinking it was his first offense. This person didn't just steal a bike out of their yard, he forcibly broke into their homes. Was he armed? What would he have done if a person was home and confronted him? Don't forget the neighborhood teenager in Dale City that killed two people when he was surprised to find them home when he broke into their home. I'm sure people would have just let him off with a slap on the wrist if the home was unoccupied at the time of the burglary.

Posted by: buffysummers | March 26, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Well, I think that they should tell the police, but not press charges. And if they decide they need to later on they still can. A few factors contribute to this.

1. The fact that the parents made him admit what he had done and apologize implies that they are capable of redirecting their son. This is a lot more important than time spent in a Juvenile Detention center, and for juveniles the who concept of punishment really should revolve around rehabilitation. Otherwise extracting a pound of flesh from a youth tends to create an adult who is institutionalized and costs the community WAY more in the long run.

2. Juvee (Detention as it is known) is really like a training camp for how to be improperly socialized. Anyone who has spent anytime around kids in Juvee can see how damaging it is. It should be saved for a last resort and used when the child cannot be corrected by the parents. Clearly there are a lot of bad parents. Let's just admit that. They either aren't capable, or aren't willing to create the structure that children need, and they add more kids to the system every year. If you have a kid whose parents are capable, let them take over. It's more effective and efficient and costs less on many levels.

3. You can collect evidence and press charges later. Let the police know what happened, and have them talk to the youth. Write the parents a letter expressing your perspective. Say you really appreciate that they took charge and made their son 'own up', but also express how the experience has damaged your trust. Let them know that you won't be pressing charges, but if it appears in the future that it is in the best interest for all involved to have the police intervene you will consider it.

Posted by: gconrads | March 26, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the kid should not be prosecuted. An apology AND restitution for the damaged caused is probably a better solution than prosecution. At the very least there will be consequences without a lasting damage to the kid's future.

Posted by: raymond_mejia | March 26, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Agree with Raymond. But, if he is caught doing it again, it's straight to juvie.

Posted by: JoeSchmoe06 | March 26, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

In the Old Testament of the Bible, it says that a thief is to pay back what he took PLUS extra. In the New Testament, it says "Let him who stole steal no more more, but let him WORK with his hands so that he will have money to GIVE to those in need." [my emphasis added]. The point is, thieves need to learn how hard it is to earn the money to buy the stuff they stole AND they need to change their heart attitude about money and possessions.

I think this boy and his parents have taken the proper FIRST step. But now they need to take the SECOND step, and have the boy do physical labor, FOR FREE, for the people from whom he stole. If the victims don't want to accept free labor, they can agree to give money to charity in the boy's name (in exchange for the labor, of course, and also assuming they can afford a gift to charity). Or the victims can designate a needy neighbor for the free labor -- an elderly person, someone in poor health, a single parent, etc.

Posted by: dmm1 | March 26, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

I would not let the kid off the hook ... one house, OK maybe ... a series of burglaries, no way.

I would report it and let the juvenile justice system work it out.

I've been burned once too often when giving a neighbor who was a criminal a break; I'm not inclined to do it again.

Posted by: fendertweed | March 26, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

OTOH, having read some other posts, I also like the idea of making the kid do manual labor working for an elderly or disabled neighbor ... I would not want him working for me or even around me or my house, but making him spend many hours doing something for nothing for someone less fortunate would be a good alternative.

Posted by: fendertweed | March 26, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Avoid the criminal justice system, but do make sure there's compensation provided for the damage to the house. There's also the option of using a community mediation center to help with confronting the chid and also negotiating fair compensation beyond the return of what was stolen.

Posted by: jwind | March 26, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I also like the idea of physical labor; before reading the comments, my thought was that the kid needs to understand the impact more, either by going through the penal system or by doing actual restitution directly for the neighbors he offended. I would ask the parents to make him 1) put every item back where it belonged, rather than have it dumped on the steps, 2) replace/repair anything that was damaged, and 3) possibly buy and install improved locks for the neighbors (under CLOSE supervision, of course). Those are the things I would expect of my child if I caught them burglarizing anyone. Not facing the victims makes it easier to forget the impact his actions had, and so easier to do it again.

Posted by: MaxH | March 26, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I think it also depends on the age of the "teen" and the kid him/herself. There might be a big difference in my response to a 13 or 14 year old than to a 17-19 year old -- all of whom are "teens."

Posted by: indolentcin1 | March 26, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I'm with a bunch of the other people here -- file the report with the cops, but do not press charges.

Least not yet. But this way if he's dumb enough to pull this kind of thing again, there's a record of previous crime that the courts can take into account.

Posted by: | March 26, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, it's not a great thing that the kid found some sort of joy in breaking and entering/theft. What is a good thing is that his parents most definitely did the right by taking ownership of the situation and forcing Jr. to take ownership for his actions. The penance for his actions was essentially a public shaming within the community.

Forcing the letter of the law and throwing the kid ("kid" not adult) into the judicial ringer is not going to have the same effect as keeping him integrated in the community. Both are forms of punishment but in my experience (yes, I could have been considered a minor delinquent at times) the softer approach holds much more meaning in the long term.

Again, well played by the parents.

Posted by: LastCommaFirst | March 26, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I agree with many of the comments here. There is no need to press charges in this case. The legal system is no place to reform a young mind. Especially one that has regret in it. I'm sure he is feeling pretty badly for what he did. Maybe actually talking with the victims and agreeing to make restitution instead if writing a letter to them might have been better, but at least he took the first steps to reform himself. It's a good start. This is something he will surely remember his entire life.

Posted by: mikeMM | March 26, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Don't press criminal charges, but do seek compensation for the damages, in a reasonable fashion (pay back over time, manual labor, etc). If the parents refuse, then sue them in civil court. That way, there are consequences, but not of the punitive or more-harm-than-good type that criminal charges will likely cause.

In civil court, the evidence of the original police report from the burglary plus the apology letter should suffice. You don't have to press criminal charges to sue in civil court.

Posted by: capsfan16 | March 26, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Simply returning the stolen goods does not constitute restitution. Something else was taken- peace of mind. How many of these folks have now assumed a victim mentality? Bought expensive security systems? Acquired firearms? Crimes like these are more than property violation.

I think that the police\judicial system should be involved to an extent appropriate to the age of the burglar. This case involved multiple crimes against people personally known to the kid. You can't let that slide. He\she has to understand that actions have consequences and sometimes those consequences are serious and far reaching.

Posted by: kguy1 | March 26, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I'm enjoying the very thoughtful ideas that have been left here. I was afraid there'd be lots of "Hang him!" comments but these show some sober reflection. Thanks.

Posted by: JohnFKelly | March 26, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

agree that the kid should not be prosecuted. An apology AND restitution for the damaged caused is probably a better solution than prosecution. At the very least there will be consequences without a lasting damage to the kid's future.

Posted by: raymond_mejia | March 26, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

This is what I was going to say plus he should be given hours to work in the neighborhood common areas to weed etc. Fifty hours should remind him working and saving money is better than stealing from honest people.

Posted by: lmthib1 | March 26, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I definitely think that reporting it or pressing charges is the wrong way to solve the problem. In this case, I don't think it is a criminal issue but a civil one. The stolen goods have been returned and the teen does need to make restitution. The boy needs to offer restitution to each homeowner that he victimized. He should offer to pay them for the damages, work for them or perform community service based on their choice. After mowing the lawns of his neighbors for the summer or working and having his paycheck go to his victims or having to work in a public facility for community service, maybe he'll truly learn the lesson that crime does not pay. Neither pressing charges nor juvenile detention is likely to be a deterrent...but a summer of hard work paying back his victims would be.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | March 26, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm with the group that says "report it but don't press charges." That's conditioned on the offender paying restitution for broken locks, broken windows, etc. If the offender (or his family, unfortunately) won't pay restitution I say press charges.

Posted by: mensa58 | March 27, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Even though the stuff was returned, it is still a criminal issue. Getting caught and giving stuff back doesn't erase the crime that occurred. And there is something else - while the parent's did enforce collecting the items and having the kid write a letter, why didn't they have him deliver his message personally? i think that would have been a much stronger lesson - looking someone in the eye to tell them what he had done wrong, and being (I hope) publicly shamed for his actions.

Posted by: Sweetpea2 | March 27, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

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