Study highlights need for state data on metal theft

Council of State Governments seeks to determine whether legislation is reducing scrap metal theft.

June 3, 2014
Recycling Today Staff
Forecasts & Statistics Legislation & Regulations

The Council of State Governments (CSG), based in Lexington, Kentucky, has released a report that looks at the national problem of scrap metal theft. CSG researchers, working in collaboration with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, sought to determine whether the legislation passed by different states was having an impact on scrap metal theft.

A significant amount of the existing legislation focuses on placing regulations and requirements on transactions at scrap metal recycling facilities where thieves might attempt to sell stolen goods.

The report notes that all 50 states have passed some form of legislation designed to curb metal theft through the regulation of transactions at scrap metal recycling facilities. Additionally, states continue to introduce additional legislation or modifications to existing laws at a steady pace. During the 2013 and 2014 sessions, for example, legislators introduced more than 220 bills aimed at stopping metal theft and passed 51 of them, the report states.  

“All 50 states have laws on the books dealing with metal theft crimes and all have differing regulations, requirements, penalties and other variables,” says Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “New laws and regulations are often the result of political reactions to high-profile crimes without any real analysis of how to address the crime as a whole. To solve this, the scrap recycling industry sought to find out if crime rates could shed any light on what laws seem to work best when it came to reducing the crime of metals theft. Armed with this knowledge, we can work with state legislatures to pass more effective legislation," she adds. 

Common state laws include:

  • records on transactions – requirements for scrap metal recyclers and dealers to create and maintain records on transactions, including reporting transactions to an electronic database, a minimum retention period for records, a description of the material being purchased, photos and/or video evidence of the seller and/or the material being purchased and a description and/or the license plate number of the seller’s vehicle; 
  • identification   stricter identification requirements for scrap metal sellers, including a license or picture ID requirement, fingerprinting and establishing proof of ownership; 
  • payment restrictions   restrictions on payments, which may include a waiting period for payments to the seller, restrictions on the form of payment the seller can receive and a maximum number of transactions during a specified time; 
  • registration/licensing  registration or licensing requirements for scrap metal recyclers and dealers through a state or local entity; 
  • hold provisions   requiring that a scrap metal recycler or dealer hold all or certain types of purchases or hold material at law enforcement request for a specified period; and.
  • criminal penalties  enhanced penalties for metal theft offenses.

"We wanted to know if those laws were affecting metal theft rates or if certain kinds of legislation were more effective at stopping metal thieves," says Jennifer Burnett, CSG program manager for fiscal and economic development policy and the study's primary author. "To begin evaluating metal theft legislation, however, we needed to know exactly how much theft was occurring."

After finding no existing source of compiled theft data for states, CSG researchers surveyed states and local law enforcement officials to determine if reliable statistics could be collected.

"The data just isn't there," says Burnett. "No state is comprehensively tracking metal theft crime statistics. While some local jurisdictions are collecting their own data, those data have a number of limitations when it comes to evaluating the impacts of state legislation.

"The bottom line is that you can't effectively evaluate what you don't measure," she says. "States just aren't collecting the kind of data needed to perform a rigorous analysis of how state legislation is affecting metal theft rates, one way or the other."

The study recommends state leaders continue to discuss ways to solve the metal theft problem. It concludes that how states begin to collect the necessary data to evaluate their policies will be the key to resolving the problem.

"Moving forward, it is unlikely data will be available in the future on a scale necessary to perform meaningful analysis unless a widespread effort is launched to create systems at the local, state and national levels to document, track and report metal theft crime uniformly and consistently," says Burnett.

While legislators have reacted quickly by putting laws to address the problem of metal theft in place, the effect those laws are having on metal theft rates is unclear aside from anecdotal observations and assumptions.

The full report is available here.