They rarely make headlines, but the most pervasive crimes in Canada are those involving the theft of property that costs the economy billions of dollars a year.

In Vancouver, a city with the highest rate of property crime in Canada, police discovered most of these crimes are committed by a small number of criminals who steal three or four times a day, often to feed a drug habit.

"They engage in the crime cycle," said Vancouver Police Chief James Chu. "What you do is you go break into a home, you steal, you take the property, convert the cash, you go to a drug dealer, you buy your drugs, you consume the drugs, and then you repeat the cycle again and again."

Vancouver Police call these people "chronic offenders." In 2004, they set up a special unit to identify and target these repeat offenders -- more than 400 men and women on their current list -- to keep them in jail as long as possible.

Property crimes seldom involve violence, but being the victim of theft can be traumatic.

"In my experience on the street, a minor crime is a crime that happens to someone else," said Sgt. Matt Clarke, the head of the Chronic Offenders Unit. "When you're the victim, it's a big deal."

Victims of property crime

Across the country one in 25 Canadians is the victim of a property crime each year. In Vancouver, that number rises to one in 13. It is a big deal for any victim, but terrifying if you're a 90-year-old invalid like Agnes Ulmer.

She was in hospital, recovering from a leg amputation, and was weak and confused from medication.

Then a man she'd never seen before came into her room and said the rings she was wearing -- treasured family heirlooms worth much more to Ulmer than money -- were dirty, unhygienic to wear in hospital, and needed cleaning.

"Coming from a little town like Simpson, Saskatchewan, you trust everyone," said Ulmer, who believed the man worked for the hospital. "Everyone's your neighbor."

So Ulmer handed over her rings to the stranger, still believing he would bring them back.

She never saw them again.

"I just wept," she said, still grieving for her rings two years after they were stolen.

But police got a break from a hospital security camera. It was just one blurry shot, but it was enough to identify Tracy Caza, a 47 year-old chronic offender with 74 previous convictions. His criminal specialty? Preying on the elderly.

"As long as I've known him, I don't think he's been out of jail more than four or five weeks," said Det. Const. Tyrone Douglas, a member of the Chronic Offenders Unit.

Despite his long history of crime, when he appeared in court, Caza was sentenced to just 14 months for stealing the rings. But with time served while awaiting trial counted as double, he only spent one day in jail after his conviction.

Agnes's grandson, Jason Dudlets, was outraged.

"The judges, I think, should be more accountable," said Dudlets. "Why are they letting these habitual criminals free all the time? After 10 convictions you'd think, okay, this guy's a bad guy. He should be locked up for a long time."

Vancouver's Chief of Police, James Chu, agrees.

"If someone is drug addicted, goes into the jail for just one week, two weeks, they come out, they're still drug addicted and they're still going to commit the crime," he said. "That's why the courts are so busy, because the revolving door just spins faster. What we'd like to see is more purposeful sentencing, offenders that go into jail for more lengthy periods of time."

Judging the judges

When the Vancouver Police analyzed sentencing for chronic offenders in 2008 -- some of them with over 100 convictions -- they discovered that after a criminal had more than 30 convictions, custodial sentences actually got shorter, not longer. In other words, the more crimes these chronic offenders committed the less time they spent in jail.

"We suspected it, but to see it verified actually dumbfounded us," said Chief Chu. "We said, ‘how can this be?' And I actually shared that with some pretty high level decision makers, including some judges.

"One judge I shared that with said he couldn't believe it either. He asked me to show him the data. I said, ‘okay, I'll send you the records.' And I never did hear back from that judge."

Chief Chu never heard back from that judge, but one retired Vancouver judge, Wallace Craig, is willing to complain publicly about his former colleagues on the bench.

"I'd say the sentences imposed by the judges are a mockery of reality," said Craig in an interview with W5.

Craig presided over the provincial court in downtown Vancouver for more than 20 years and believes his solution to the problem of chronic offenders is simple.

"Jail them," he said emphatically. "If they have a significant record, they should do the maximum, and when they get released, if they do it again, give them another maximum. Eventually they'll learn that you can't keep on stealing."

Turning it around

Craig has support from a surprising source -- a chronic offender who realized his life of crime and drugs would eventually kill him.

At the age of 37, Kenneth Gates has racked up over 40 criminal convictions -- 23 years in and out of prison. He estimates he's probably broken into over a thousand homes to feed his addiction to crack cocaine.

Gates said that when he realized the only way to shake that addiction was to get off the street, he turned himself in and asked for a long sentence. He is currently serving a three-year sentence in a federal prison for break and enter, possession of stolen property and possession of a prohibited weapon. But he's asked that he not be offered parole -- he wants to serve his full time.

"I felt that they would have programs to offer me," said Gates. "I've done federal time twice before. They were short, the shortest possible sentence which was two years each time. And they had better programs. You have a more successful chance of getting your life together."

The Vancouver Police Chronic Offenders Unit hopes Kenneth Gates will be one of many success stories. Already they've seen a 10 per cent drop in property crime in the city over the last few years.

"They are making a dent," said Chief Chu. "There's a lot more room there for improvement."