By Troy Closson
United States Postal Service letter carrier Homer Hernandez has delivered mail in the San Antonio area for over 15 years. And in that time, he's seen more items get stolen from households' mailboxes and porches than he can count.
"It's happened a hell of a lot over the past few years," said Hernandez, the vice president of the Texas State Association of Letter Carriers. "Almost every day."
A new bill signed last week by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott aims to deter offenders by upping the punishment for such crimes.
House Bill 37, which goes into effect Sept. 1, criminalizes mail theft, with the penalty ranging from a class A misdemeanor to third-degree felony, depending on the number of addresses mail is taken from. That means the punishment ranges from up to one year in jail and a fine of $4,000 to between two and 10 years in prison and fine of up to $10,000, depending on the number of addresses stolen from. The punishment also increases — and can go up to a first-degree felony — if there's proof an offender intended to obtain someone’s identifying information or steal from the address of a disabled or elderly person.
Mail theft wasn't defined in the state's penal code before the bill, so crimes were often charged as property or identity theft. The legislation, authored by state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, also gives state and local law enforcement departments the ability to handle cases. Before, they were required to refer all mail crimes to federal officers.
That led to challenges in prosecuting them, and over time, the need for state involvement has grown, said Chief Johnny Siemens of the Castle Hills Police Department in Bexar County.
"They just weren't working your average mail theft where you've got a couple of offenders driving around a neighborhood with people's mail," Siemens said. "Their threshold typically required another felony or something in conjunction with it to get to the level of having one of the state inspectors step in, and they're already very busy."
Siemens said offenders who make off with a few packages or parcels of mail often don't stop there. The theft, he said, can represent a gateway to larger crimes of identity theft or fraud, and Texas ranks among the top 15 in the nation for both.
Texas Criminal Justice Coalition peer policy fellow Allison Franklin, however, worries the bill could end up doing more harm than good.
"How we prevent package theft is to create options for secure delivery," Franklin said. "But instead, our Legislature took the easy way out and just elevated the penalties for package theft, and obviously policies like that have led us to the largest prison population of any state."
Franklin called the bill's penalty structure "absurd" because it doesn't take into account the value of stolen mail. Taking a low-cost package from someone's porch, for example, shouldn't have a higher punishment than stealing an expensive mountain bike from her lawn, she said.
Some like Chris Harris, a data analyst for criminal justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, also fear a potential felony charge for basic mail theft is too high.
But Siemens said that ultimately, what's most important to him is that soon, there will just be a tangible punishment for mail theft at all.
"We weren't concerned with differentiating between felony or class A misdemeanor," Siemens said. "We just needed something greater than a class C so we can make effective arrests. What happens if you just write a ticket is offenders drive down the road and continue mail thieving, so this is a great step forward."
This article originally appeared at the Texas Tribune.