DA: Send car thieves to prison

Stanislaus County has been called "ground zero" for auto theft in recent years, so District Attorney Birgit Fladager is taking issue with the governor's plan to make auto theft a misdemeanor punishable by time in a local jail, rather than hard time in state prison.

In a statement released Monday, Fladager joined a chorus of prosecutors who think Gov. Schwarzenegger should abandon his plan to save $180 million by commuting sentences of undocumented immigrants and reducing punishments for various forms of theft.

Members of the California District Attorney's Association said they recognize the magnitude of California's budget crisis, but still think the public would be at risk if up to 19,000 offenders don't serve full sentences, particularly those who entered the country illegally and might return after deportation.

Stanislaus County has had the nation's highest auto theft rates in five of the past six years, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, so Fladager is most concerned with the plan to make auto theft a misdemeanor, taking away prosecutors' discretion to file felony or misdemeanor charges.

"That would cripple law enforcement," she said.

Under the governor's proposal, auto theft, identity theft, grand theft and some types of fraud could no longer be charged as felonies. The change would shift 23,000 inmates to county jails, according to published reports.

Prosecutors would not be able to point to a string of prior offenses to demand stiffer consequences, as they do in felony cases, so thieves could steal cars over and over again without facing the threat of prison.

Fladager said the governor should instead commute sentences after offenders serve one year in prison, so a thief would have a felony conviction and be subject to supervision on parole.

The main thrust of Schwarzenegger's proposal is aimed at undocumented immigrants serving time behind bars. He recommends early release for up to 19,000 undocumented inmates who could be transferred to the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to published reports.

Prosecutors beg to differ, saying offenders should be held accountable, even when times are tight.

"It's not that much of a burden for them to come back," Fladager said. "If you've been sentenced to prison, you should do your prison time."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at or 578-2338.