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Break-in crackdown should be for life not just Christmas


He had seen my kitchen window was open. He'd taken a closer look. Someone had jemmied the frame. The kitchen drawers and cupboard were all open. "Someone's broken in," he said.

It was 15 years ago but I will always remember returning home. The muddy footprint at the bottom of my bed is still vivid in my mind. So too is the feeling of invasion. Although nothing of value was stolen, I never again felt safe when I was alone in that house.

The thought of waking to find someone standing at the bottom of my bed was unnerving. I contemplated keeping a baseball bat by me during the night but the boot print was size 12. What if he did come back and used my own weapon to attack me? And so I slept lightly, being woken by the wind or an imagined noise outside.

Housebreaking: a minor crime, right? Wrong. Its consequences can be devastating. Some people never recover from it. Older people who live alone may never again feel safe in their homes again. Believe me, it's serious.

So I'm all for the police crackdown this Christmas. From now until January 6, anyone caught breaking into a house faces a prison sentence of up to five years. My only question is, why restrict it to Christmas? Why not carry it on all year round? The damage to the victims is the same whether their home is invaded in December or July.

We have jokes about Burglar Bill. The thief with his mask and bag of swag has even become a children's book character. Well, how's this for a sick joke? A young couple's flat in Edinburgh was broken into while they were away for the weekend. When they returned they found the contents of every drawer emptied on the floor. Their wedding presents were broken, scattered or taken. Eight pieces of furniture had been smashed with a crowbar. The thief had left black rubber glove hand prints on walls, on cushions, on bed linen. He had taken their keys and driven off in their car.

Hours later he was arrested after turning the car over on a dual carriageway. He was high on heroin. The story that later unfolded only added insult to the injury the victims had suffered.

The housebreaker had been released from prison on licence the day before. Following his re-arrest, he was returned to complete his previous sentence. What would you think a fair punishment for his next offence? A longer spell in prison? Well, this was what he got. He lost his driver's licence and was ordered to attend two hours of drug rehabilitation a week. There was no custodial sentence even though he had a long history of criminality, including previous housebreakings.

Imagine the effect on the couple. They had a toddler. The wife was expecting another baby. "I was manic," she said. "You hear that burglars wait until you have replaced your things and then they come back. I couldn't put the babies down in another room and take a nap. I kept checking on them during the night.

"We spent a fortune alarming every window. I couldn't have stayed here otherwise. We're connected to the police station 24/7 and I still keep a wary eye for anyone who might be watching the house."

Who can blame her? He was an addict with a crowbar. I am not an advocate of harsh justice, but cases like this underline the uselessness of repeated short sentences.

Why have a revolving door for an offender with a criminal history as long as your arm? Like many housebreakers, this one had a drug habit that needed feeding. Crime was his cash cow - presumably it still is. Or does anyone think that two hours a week of drug rehab rid him of his heroin addiction?

Wouldn't a five-year sentence give society a break and - incorporated with intensive and long-term rehabilitation - treat the addiction? Deterrence is important too.

I have recounted two incidents. I could list at least two more from the area immediately round where I live. Between April and August this year, there were 828 housebreakings in Edinburgh alone. I bet each one carries with it a tale of loss and a legacy of misery.

How many of those victims had irreplaceable family items taken? How do you measure sentimental value? And what about what thieves leave in their wake? What about the damage done by a sense of violation? Someone unknown and unseen has entered your home, invaded your privacy, handled and destroyed things you care about. They have robbed your home of its sense of sanctuary.

Police Scotland report a 4% increase in housebreakings since the beginning of April. There is criticism about the way the new force has handled its investigations.

For example, in Edinburgh, one of the nine areas where the Christmas crackdown is in force, there used to be a team of detectives focused on the housebreaking. They knew the most likely suspects and their pattern of behaviour. Between April and August 2012, their clear-up rate was 42.7%. That dropped to 21.1% for the same period this year after the specialists were incorporated into Community Investigation Units. Their remit was broadened to included violence and drug crime.

Put another way, the 21.1% clear-up gives a housebreaker a four in five chance of getting away with the crime. I find that scandalous. I think most homeowners will.

Increasing numbers of people live alone and no-one of either gender would relish confronting an intruder, or returning home to find one has called. Victim support groups warn of elderly people who become house-bound for fear of being broken into and losing treasured possessions. Others are frightened in their own homes.

We tend to think of violent and drug-related crime as being part of a parallel universe. Housebreaking is different. It's the law-abiding who are targeted. This is a good time of year to introduce the pilot scheme. It gets dark early and stays dark in the mornings. People have bought Christmas presents and many will be planning time away from home over the holiday period.

Will the threat of a long jail sentence deter the unscrupulous and the desperate? It will stop some in their tracks. Not all.

But we need to take all the precautions we can. We need to keep an eye out for our neighbours. And we need to press for the greatest deterrent of all.

We need a better clear-up rate. Not 21%, nor even 42%, much higher. Goodness knows we have enough security cameras which are sold to us as anti-crime devices. But there is still nothing to beat a properly focused police force - a team that knows the crime and can identify the usual suspects.

That suggests a trip back to the future for Edinburgh and a greater focus on housebreaking for the rest of the country too. And a crackdown that continues beyond January 6.

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