All the ways that damage is done


News this week of the arrest of three young Islanders who this winter stole $50,000 worth of tools and equipment from their work-a-day neighbors reflects very well on the cooperating police forces who brought this criminal spree to an end. The efforts of police in all six towns, on this matter and so many others, make the Vineyard a better, safer, more tranquil place to live. We owe these law enforcement professionals a great deal.

It’s true that these three young men behaved heedlessly, inexplicably, and it’s true too that their behavior is not dangerous in the way that the behavior of drug dealers, violent attackers, rapists, or even drunk drivers is. One hopes that their treatment by the courts will mix punishment and all-in restitution with a measured opportunity for the three to redeem themselves.

Still, in one respect, even thoughtless, juvenile thievery shares something in common with the other bad behaviors mentioned above. It harms Islanders and degrades community life, which today fortunately strikes most Vineyarders as generally pleasant, healthful, and even innocent of some of the patterns of social decay common elsewhere.

Three elements of the story of the young thieves are particularly striking.

The criminal behavior was pointless, taking a toll for no reason at all. “There is really no reason why, other than the fact that they wanted to take the stuff,” West Tisbury police chief Dan Rossi told The Times.

Pointless perhaps, but still deeply harmful. Paul Brewer, owner of Brewer Tree and Landscaping, had four chain saws and other equipment stolen. It was tough on his business, threatening his livelihood. “I can’t work if I don’t have stuff to work with,” he said.

And it takes a toll on law enforcement too. “I just spoke to one of the victims and congratulated him on getting his tools back,” Chief Bettencourt told Times managing editor Nelson Sigelman. “And he said, you know it was really nice for me and my crew to go to work, and we actually had some tools to work with.”

But, then there were the conversations Chief Bettencourt had to have with parents of the three.”It is not something that is easy,” he said. “To have to talk to a parent that I know personally and tell her how much trouble her son is in. I just try to be compassionate and understanding.”

Compassion and understanding is particularly called for in this case. The theft of tools from contractors in several towns was small-bore misbehavior, nothing like drug dealing or the other more common criminality of which the district court report is sadly, repetitiously full.

But nevertheless, in common with other, more sensational crimes, this $50,000 worth of thievery was an assault on a community and its law-abiding members, and was dangerous to the community’s well-being.

As this page has observed before, the clear mission of the police, which they discharge very well, is to prevent criminal behavior and apprehend the bad actors, all in the interest of the community’s good health.

What is less clear is whether the apparatus of the courts and the prison systems here work as effectively. Turning miscreants into solid citizens is certainly part of their mission, but doing so with the well-being of the community sharply in primary focus is most important.

Even the law as it pertains to bail, recognizes not only the need to ensure the accused’s appearance at court, but also the need for a careful assessment of the danger that the community faces when the question is whether to release someone arrested by diligent police work and charged with a crime.

Drug dealing is dangerous to a community as small and relatively innocent as this one. The courts, in the matter of bail and sentencing, have an opportunity on Martha’s Vineyard to help hold the line against the expansion of serious criminal behavior. But it is not only an opportunity, it’s a responsibility.