One of the truly insidious things about crime is that criminals don't often voluntarily stop after the first one.

This tendency toward repetition among lawbreakers is hardly a surprise: Except for certain violent offenses, a person convicted for the first time in most states, including Oregon, probably won't spend much time, if any, inside a cell.

This system of escalating punishments is not illogical a person who's never had so much as a speeding ticket doesn't deserve a life sentence for swiping a candy bar.

Trouble is, Oregon's laws are also pretty lenient toward people whose first offenses are rather more serious making or selling meth, heroin or cocaine, for instance.

State law doesn't require prison sentences for many first-time drug crimes or for other significant offenses including identity theft and first-degree burglary. People convicted of those crimes sometimes are sentenced to probation. Compared with the prospect of a few years in prison, probation is a poor deterrent.

Kevin Mannix, the former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate, wants to toughen sentencing guidelines.

Mannix is promoting Initiative 40, which he hopes to put on the November ballot. It would mandate minimum sentences of three years for first-degree burglary, identity theft and Class A felony convictions for making or selling meth, heroin or cocaine.

Some lawmakers contend Oregon can't afford to build the two or three prisons needed to house all the new inmates, and that the state should spend more money to deal with the root cause of many property crimes: drug addiction.

We agree with the second point, but disagree with the first.

The state should help drug abusers conquer their addictions fewer addicts means fewer criminals.

But the alternative that legislators have offered to counter Mannix's idea tougher penalties for repeat offenders, but not for first-time criminals not only would merely postpone the prison-building bill, which is bad, but it would result in more crimes and more victims, which is worse.

We want to discourage all crimes, rather than an offender's second or third or 10th crimes. We think criminals would more likely be deterred if they knew they could go to prison for three years the very first time they get caught.

That's why we like Mannix's Initiative 40 it does away with what are, in effect, freebies for first-time offenders.

Building prisons, and hiring addiction counselors to work with the inmates incarcerated there, will be expensive. Protecting citizens usually is.

But that is government's most sacred duty.

The problem of property crimes already qualifies as a sort of plague in Oregon, which has a higher rate of such crimes than all but 14 other states.

As a society we have an obligation not only to the victims of those crimes, but also to the troubled people who commit them, to start working on solutions now.