Crime and punishment

July 1, 2008
Back in January, after Cleveland came out of a particularly extreme cold snap, a pipe burst in our townhouse. Seeing the event as a blessing in disguise,

Back in January, after Cleveland came out of a particularly extreme cold snap, a pipe burst in our townhouse. Seeing the event as a blessing in disguise, we took the opportunity to renovate the kitchen, which along with the garage below, was damaged by the flood.

Along with many truckloads of soaked drywall, flooring, insulation, and cabinets, tearing out the old kitchen also generated a decent amount of copper-wire waste. So, as work progressed, I collected the little reddish scraps, and tossed them in bag of old lamp cords and speaker wire we already had going. Finally wanting to cash in on my sack o' copper, I Googled for scrap-metal buyers in the area. As it turns out, this Rustbelt city has several. And it also has a problem: Unenlightened copper-pipe thieves, as in many cities, are preying on Cleveland's foreclosed homes and ripping out pipes before their time, to sell as scrap. The cash value of raw-commodity copper blinds these burglars to the more immediate usefulness of plumbed dwellings, inhabited or otherwise.

Now, with my own kitchen only recently recovered from its utter lack of drywall, I can illustrate the destructiveness of pipe theft for you: In our new kitchen, we had architectural engineers remove a load-bearing wall and move supports for a more open floorplan. Amazingly, the job of altering what keeps our home standing cost about one-third what the plumbers charged to work on a few lines and valves. Shocked by the original estimates, we got multiple quotes for the work, but the consensus is that plumbing is a finer, more costly art.

So, then, if it's true that a punishment should fit the crime, perhaps apprehended copper-pipe thieves should take plumbing and pipefitting classes when they're in the slammer, preparing them to make amends if released. Think about it: If schooled in run layout and soldering, these folks (some of them, anyway) might be moved by what supplies drinking and washing water to humans for cleaner, healthier, convenient lives. In addition, forced training in the science of fluid dynamics, that last great frontier of macroscopic physics, might be instrumental in turning some looters into the next Isaac Newtons of liquids and gasses — to displace piles of empirical formulas, fudge factors, and approximating charts with hard-defined statements on that vital, mysterious fluid state of matter. Breaking rock piles too harsh a punishment? No problem. We'll chain our lawless masses to desks and let them pound away on scientific challenges. No proficiency, no release; it's that simple.

Also, I humbly suggest historical instruction and even reenactments for our recovering pipe pirates. This would include hands-on lessons beginning with the earliest water technologies, including (but not limited to) Mesopotamian irrigation, Chinese channels, and Dutch drainage engineering — with actual implementation of said systems using tools and techniques common for the time. Naturally, members of pipefitting and plumbing unions, especially those whose homes have been violated, will want to help in the rehabilitation. And who better to determine workloads and administer disciplinary action when inmates get out of line? Septic tanks are a great place to build character and reflect on one's life.

All this gives reason for optimism, as the solution is conveniently in the problem: In this case, even hardened copper robbers develop new appreciation for what they once destroyed, and learn that crime doesn't pay … nor does copper at today's gas prices, as I learned when I drove my little bag of wire to the scrap recycler.

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