Duuum-bah-duh-dum …… daaah!

While attending a concert at a downtown arena, my then-boyfriend and I thought ourselves clever to have found a parking space on the street and thus avoid paying through the nose for garage parking. Prior to leaving his apartment, we put all our stuff in the trunk of his late-’80s Toyota Corolla, planning on continuing on to my place after the show.

A supposedly street-smart and wizened city-dweller for my entire life, I cavalierly left my wallet (with social security card), checkbook, $300 cash, irreplaceable jewelry, an organizer, and some clothing shoved in the trunk. Save for the thin walls of metal and a cheap trunk lock, I had left my possessions naked to the mean streets of skid row-adjacent.

We happily tooled home after the show, parked, and opened the trunk to retrieve our belongings. The lid popped open, and our gasps were drowned out by the loud sucking sound from the trunk, as if we had we released the seal on a vacuum. It was empty. In my shock and confusion, I had that feeling of having just crossed a threshold, where I was convinced that if I could stay in that moment for just a little while longer, I could have crossed back over to the before and undo the wrong that was done – leave my stuff at the boyfriend’s house, not park on the street – anything different than what was (or wasn’t ) laid out before us. It was the shock of loss and the disbelief that I, born and bred city girl, could have been so naïve.

We drove back downtown to go find our stuff.

Under bridge and overpass, we eyed every homeless person with a new air of suspicion and contempt. The muttering, grizzled old man with an overburdened shopping cart was now my enemy and not to be trusted. Every gleaming metal beer can was my necklace; every bag was my bag of clothes; every piece of trash was a page from my Filofax or business card or address book. We combed through the bushes, dug through trashcans, and cased the perimeter of our parking spot. By now the area was emptied of the other clever parkers and concert-goers, and we hadn’t formulated a plan about how we would get our stuff back from the crazy drug-addled low-life who had somehow managed to jimmy the trunk open without us noticing. This was a job for the cops.

We found the nearest police station and shuffled in, tails between our legs. We all know that cops on skid row have better things to do than take a theft report from some dumb-ass middle-class white people. Surprisingly, they weren’t busy and took the report in record time. They then sent us down to the fingerprint station where the man came out with a jar of white powder and proceeded to brush for prints. They were efficient and polite, and told us to check back in a few days.

None of our stuff was ever recovered, and I didn’t make good on my vow to scour every pawnshop within a 3-mile radius to see if I could at least recover the jewelry I had lost.

Not surprisingly, over the next year I discovered that whoever stole my checkbook was writing bad checks against my since-cancelled account. Anybody who has had their wallet stolen knows what a huge hassle it is to retrieve one’s identity. In the grand scheme of things, though, I figured I got off easy.

About a year later I received a call from a police detective in Eugene, Oregon. Apparently a couple of those forged checks had turned up there, and the kind policeman was calling to make sure that I knew that they were on the case. Most of our conversation was about how surprised I was that he had taken the time to call me, and even more so that they were even bothering to pursue the case at all. The checks were written to grocery stores for small amounts – $53 or $27 – these were obviously not big-time crooks. But apparently things are much quieter in Eugene, and so the detectives have the time and inclination to follow through on what a big city cop would consider a petty crime.

The kind officer offered to keep me informed if the criminals were caught. I said yes, having allowed myself to be charmed by the arcane feeling that Mayberry RFD still existed somewhere in the world. I thanked him for his attention and happily went on my way, thinking that the wheels of justice were protecting me from the big bad unknown.

A few months passed, and I began receiving official letters from the U.S. Department of Justice, replete with Court Docket numbers, names of the perpetrators, and the official USDOJ seal. These letters informed me of who the defendants were, when and where the court proceedings would be taking place, and the status of the charges and trials. Along with the letters I received a blue pamphlet:

“The Department of Justice Victim Notification System

A Service Provided by:

  • The Federal Bureau Of Investigation
  • The United States Attorneys’ Offices
  • The Federal Bureau Of Prisons
  • The Office For Victims Of Crime

In Cooperation with:

  • The United States Postal Inspection Service.”

Along with a yellow pamphlet entitled:

“Identity Theft: A Guide For Victims.”

That’s right, I was now an official victim. I even had my own Victim Identification Number (VIN), and a phone number was provided should I feel the need to check in on my case at any time. The yellow pamphlet offered helpful advice about what to do if you are a victim of identity theft. Some of the advice was quite practical, such as contacting the credit bureaus and not paying fraudulent bills. But my favorite piece of advice was #7: “Take care of your emotional needs.” Now that’s just lovely. Who would think that the FBI is concerned about my emotional well-being?

The letters kept coming, sometimes as often as once a week. Every step of the case for each of the perps was outlined, and I was invited to participate in the prosecution of the bad guys by attending the court proceedings, to confer with the attorneys involved in the cases, and even to be notified should the accused escape (!).

Rather than comforting, I increasingly found these notices to be unsettling, even downright creepy. I’m not a fan of the criminal justice system, and when I saw that these people were going to jail, I felt sad for the waste of their lives behind bars. I empathized with the suffocation of their confinement, rather than feeling any satisfaction that they were somehow getting what they deserved. Clearly the threat of incarceration doesn’t stop most criminals from committing crimes, and in fact jail time is apparently more like graduate school for criminals than rehabilitation.

Eventually I stopped opening the letters altogether, but they followed me when I moved. I began to feel paranoid that if the U.S. Department of Justice could find me, what’s to stop the criminals themselves from doing the same? I mean, if the overburdened court system, rife with red tape, confusion, and false convictions could somehow match me up with the person who did me wrong, what was to stop the wrongdoer with nothing but time on his hands from doing more harm?

The last letter, which came about a month ago, informed me that my perp was about to be released. How was this helping me? Knowing this made me feel more victimized than I felt during the original crime. My paranoia was increasing with the arrival of each letter. What could I do if I knew that the guy was back and looking for someone to take out his anger on? As it says in the Commonly Asked Questions,

“4.) Do not depend on VNS to ensure your safety. If you feel that you are being threatened, immediately notify law enforcement.”

Yeah, not in my neighborhood.

I feel lucky that it was only my stuff that was stolen. No harm came to me directly, aside from the feeling of violation that comes with having one’s belongings rifled through and taken away. I wasn’t mugged, or beaten up, or worse. I didn’t really feel like a victim after the initial feeling of loss wore off. These pamphlets and programs weren’t for me. Thankfully, I was not their target demographic, and I hope that I, and anyone I know or love, never will be.

After that last letter, I decided that I would be a victim no more. Like all good programs, this one came with an “uninstall” option. I called the automated number and finally removed myself from the victim’s list. I suddenly felt very free – it was okay to not be so well-informed after all.

19 responses to “Duuum-bah-duh-dum …… daaah!”

  1. Dave says:

    I empathized with the suffocation of their confinement, rather than feeling any satisfaction that they were somehow getting what they deserved.

    You are such a mushy-headed liberal, Lit.

  2. Rachel says:

    Clearly not the same LHD who wants a gun.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    I can’t really speak to the adult side of the criminal justice system, but the juvenile side is very positive. Ninety percent of the juveniles arrested, we never see again, kids just make some dumb mistakes, and going through the “system” is a positive experience. This is the very reason that I hate to see our society wanting to treat kids as adults. In fact, I just spoke with a young man last night who had been a gang member, and was arrested for a drive-by, and spent a year in jail. He said the arrest was the best thing for him, since he’s now been out for a year with no arrests, and he denounced the gang life. He has one child, with another on the way, is working a steady job. He said that having the child has really been the influence to get his life in order, and also the fact that he realized how difficult it was on his mom and family.

    We need a shift in our society, where we spend money proactively to prevent crime and drug use, rather than spending much more money on the intervention and suppression. Our war on drugs does not work; we really need legislators who will take a look at jailing our people drug use and sales. If we spent the money on education programs like drug/alcohol prevention, we could see the same reductions as we have had the past 20 years with smoking. In the juvenile system, we have really taken a great approach with using research-based behavior modification programs, to reduce recidivism. Washington State has been a leader in the nation (with many states like New York following suit) to create a risk assessment, and plug the juvenile offenders into programs. I can’t remember the exact figure, but it’s something like $30.00 saved for every dollar spent on these programs! And no, incarceration itself isn’t a big reducer of crime (although it works for many), it is accountability, and the conduit (including incentive) for the offenders to be plugged into these programs.

    One program that we are using is called Aggression Replacement Treatment which is a 30 hour class which teaches juvenile offenders social skills, anger management, and moral reasoning skills. Another promising program is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which was originally intended to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, but has shown to also reduce recidivism. No, the “system” is not perfect, but there are good people working on it. Lastly, juvenile crime was on a steady increase until 1999, and now on a steady decline.

  4. Dave says:

    It’s kind of amazing to go back and read a bit of criminology literature from 30 or 40 years ago (don’t know when the turning point was), when they actually believed in rehabilitation. Glad to hear it’s still a goal of the juvenile system.

  5. AW says:

    I enjoyed this post.

    I’m heartened by Marleyfan’s comments about the juvenile system–something I know very little about. I am curious to ask him what makes it different from the adult system, and what about those differences makes the juvenile system work?

    Thanks, again, for the post.

  6. Jeremy says:

    I was pickpocketed while in Budapest. I filled out a police report, more as a way of doing something–anything–rather than with the notion that I’d get my wallet back.

    About two years later, I had almost completely forgotten about the experience until I got a notice from the Budapest police department indicating that they were finally closing my case, unsolved. I know that it’s not like they did anything to try and apprehend the pickpocket, that they were just sending me some pro-forma paperwork, but I couldn’t help imagining someone working on my case for that prior two years, finally getting frustrated at all the dead-end clues, all those leads leading, well, nowhere.

    It’s always a shock to me when I hear stories about the police doing anything other than giveing speeding tickets or chasing down serial killers.

    Thoughtful post, [redacted to preserve anonymity].

  7. andrea says:

    How quaint the checks showed up in Eugene, my lil home town. Checkbook theft is a popular crime in Eugene and an excellent pursuit for speed freaks who are up all night and want to go through normal, sleepy people’s mailboxes. The good thing is, speed freaks are not clever enough to actually steal your identity…they’ll just write the check. but then they might sell the check book. Oh well.

  8. Marleyfan says:

    Aw,
    I started responding to your question, but and after is started becoming more and more like a post (instead of comment); I decided instead to leave you with a couple quotes from Elliot Currie instead:
    “We’ve come to accept a reactive and custodial justice system as the best we can do. That is partly because many believe that people who break the law don’t deserve anything better. But it is also a reflection of the widespread myth that we do not know how to use our justice system for anything other than punishment.”
    And,
    “…often used-or misused-by both the criminal justice system and the public as a rug under which disturbing problems and people can be swept.”

  9. Marleyfan says:

    The comment above was about the adult criminal justice system…

    *And* sorry that it was sloppy, my brain get’s going faster than my fingers.

  10. PB says:

    I got a letter in the mail the other day that said one of my credit cards numbers had been changed due to identiy theft. No call, no pre-letter, no lost card, no details, no inclination on my part–just different number and brief letter. I was sort of happy I guess that the company is on the ball, but there was also a creepy feeling of I did not know and now I do and how did you know and . . . complicated. As horrible as identiy theft I know can be, the knee jerk response to all things that hint at badness can be as unsettling. Should I be scared now?Perhaps sometimes ignorance is bliss.

  11. Tim Wager says:

    Sasha Abramsky has a book coming out soon called American Furies, which argues that the US justice and penal systems have devolved into mechanisms for exacting punishment and vengeance on convicted criminals. I’m curious to read the book and I wonder what someone like Marleyfan, who has a lot of experience working in the juvenile system, would think. I’m pretty sure, but not certain, that Abramsky only focuses on adults.

    As to the post, the role of “victim” is certainly a strange one. Not only is one violated by the criminal act — theft, assault, rape, etc. — but as a further indignity (bordering on violation) one also gets labeled and categorized. I’m glad that Literacy was able to uninstall this programming, but often with more serious crimes it’s much more difficult to overcome because the justice system and people around the unlucky soul continue to identify him/her as a “victim”. To be a victim like this is to be placed in a constellation with the criminal and the act, forever in a fixed relationship to one another.

  12. MrMarleyFan says:

    I’ll read Abramsky’s book when it comes out and let you know.

    Although I try to stay positive, the “system” is not really good for victims. In many ways, they are re-victimized by the system. There is a fairly new push for system that really emphasizes the victim, however, while making the victims correctly, it leaves out many other important components…

  13. Jeremy says:

    duh! sorry, literacy, for (momentarily) outing you!

  14. L.H. D'fight says:

    ….can’t……talk…..
    …..must…..fend…..off…..evil…..doers……..now…..know…my…secret……identity…!

  15. AW says:

    Thanks for your responses, Marleyfan, and I hope you write the post. I’d enjoy reading it and learning more from somebody who can illuminate the system from within for those of us on the outside who don’t know much about how it works.

    And thanks again to LHD for the post and conversation it prompted.

  16. TC says:

    I had a taxi driver two years ago who had rigged up his meter with a special button that he could press to increase the fare by one “click” value (at the time, 30 cents) at will. I watched him do this until the fare was approximately double the correct fare. When I refused to pay, he chased me down the block and demanded $50 from me. (The correct fare was around $10; the metered fare was $20.) I gleefully called the police, reported him to the Taxi & Limousine Commission, hounded the TLC investigator over the next 7 months, and testified vigorously at the hearing in which the driver claimed that I had hurled ethnic slurs at him, smoked cigarettes in the taxi, tried to pay him $100 to allow me to have sex with my girlfriend in the car during the ride, and beaten him over the head with my messenger bag when he attempted to collect his rightful fare. The judge found my testimony “legally credible” and the driver’s testimony “not credible at all.” His hack license was revoked and he was fined several thousand dollars, which was the maximum penalty the TLC could impose. I was delighted with the TLC-imposed punishment and only wished that I had had the foresight to insist that the police responding to the scene inspect his meter and charge him with fraud. Basically, though, I felt like a conquering hero. It made me think that the law is the most emotionally satisfying device available. Not just the most emotionally satisfying device with respect to crime: the most emotionally satisfying device, period.

    Sometimes when I watch Law & Order and see Detective Briscoe ask the murder victim’s spouse if anyone could have wanted to harm their husband or wife, I wonder if my girlfriend would tell the police about this incident should I be found murdered. I’m fairly afraid of this happening.

  17. TC says:

    Oh right, so be it known that New York City taxicab 2C79 may still have a rigged meter in it.

  18. Dave says:

    Dude, TC, you’re like a real-live Eliot Spitzer.

  19. J-Man says:

    Awesome, TC, that you kept at it! I think most people would give up after a couple months.