Metal theft costing growers millions of dollars

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Published at TheCalifornian.com

Earlier this month, I chaired an informational hearing of the Senate's Agriculture Committee in Fresno on the growing problem of agricultural metal theft in California.

Estimates place the annual loss of U.S. agricultural economic activity because of agricultural crime at well over $5 billion. Here in California, our farm economy is losing tens of millions of dollars each year to thieves. Metal theft is particularly expensive as the damage to equipment typically far outweighs the value of the stolen metal. Farmers and ranchers across the state commonly find hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of damage to their irrigation pumps from metal thieves who are intent on stealing only a few dollars' worth of wiring.

In 2008, the Legislature made an effort to stem the tide of metal theft in California with the passage of AB 844 (Berryhill), SB 691 (Calderon) and SB 447 (Maldonado). Each of these bills attempted to provide local law enforcement with information about who is bringing in what materials to be recycled. Even though the bills have been successful in helping law enforcement crack down on thieves to an extent, the increasing global demand for raw materials is fueling a rise in local metal theft. We must do more.

At the Fresno hearing, we heard testimony from a wide spectrum of those affected by this growing problem, including law enforcement, victims of metal theft and recyclers. What they told us was illuminating and alarming. For example, Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan stated that metal theft now comprises 85 percent of all rural crimes in the county.

It's frustrating that as we try to find ways to reduce metal theft, a new state law is tying the hands of the law enforcement community. The testimony they and District Attorney Egan provided at the hearing focused on their inability to take repeat offenders off the street. Because of the prison realignment that took place under last year's AB 109, anyone convicted of non-violent, non-sexual, or non-serious crimes is no longer sent to state prison. They are the responsibility of the counties, many of which cannot afford to keep them in jail. As a result, metal thieves are quickly released back on the street with what amounts to a slap on the wrist.

Another recurring message that stood out is the burgeoning market for stolen metal. We heard from a legitimate recycler who is upset with the bad actors in the industry who do not have a problem purchasing stolen property. Because the metals are so valuable, there is a market for them not just in the United States, but around the world. With thousands of containers moving in and out of California's ports each year, it is impossible to track which might hold stolen metal.

This problem has become so rampant that many farmers are taking matters into their own hands. As one farmer told us, the Central Valley has become a new "Wild West." Farmers are banding together to patrol rural areas. Some have resorted to making their own spike strips to ensnare the vehicles of thieves. It's only a matter of time before this state of lawlessness leads to violence.

Whether you're a farmer whose livelihood and property is directly threatened by metal thieves or a consumer paying higher prices for produce and other goods, this problem impacts us all. Seven bills addressing metal theft have been introduced during this legislative session alone and we will have more hearings in the months ahead. We already know that we need to empower our local law enforcement to put these criminals away and stop the revolving door that puts them right back out on the street. At the same time, we also need to work with our farmers and the recycling industry to find new ways of preventing metal theft crimes.

This will remain a priority for me and the Senate Agriculture Committee this year. I will continue to look at new legislative solutions that build upon current law. The risks of not doing so are too great.