Senator Richard J. Codey and Senator Anthony M. Bucco today announced plans to introduce bipartisan legislation that would give law enforcement new tools to fight “an epidemic of car thefts, often organized by gangs that prey on at-risk juveniles.”
Citing data and discussions with local law enforcement officials over the past three months, the senators said brazen networks of car thieves and gangs have pushed New Jersey to the point of crisis. The state is on pace to see more than 17,000 vehicles stolen this year. Car thefts also have been increasing at least 20% annually since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and they noted that one case involved a 14-year-old girl.
“These gangs are turning children into criminals by recruiting juveniles to steal cars,” said Senator Codey (D-Essex). “Until recently, they typically focused on searching unlocked cars for key fobs to take the car. Now, law enforcement is encountering kids entering homes looking for fobs or car keys.”
The bill would expand penalties for those stealing or receiving vehicles, as well as those who recruit juveniles to do so. The bill would also increase the penalties for those convicted of motor vehicle theft or receiving a stolen motor vehicle and subject repeat offenders to the possibility of an extended term.
“The numbers are disturbing, but more troubling is the way the thefts are occurring and the growing use of stolen cars in committing violent crimes,” said Senator Bucco (R-Morris). “The methods and intentions of the criminals have evolved. Car thefts have expanded well beyond simple property crimes. Now the safety of our law abiding residents is at risk.”
A juvenile who is found to have received a stolen vehicle would have to serve 60 days of community service, and a juvenile who has previously been adjudicated delinquent for a motor vehicle charge would be required to get a minimum 60-day period of incarceration. Additionally, it would increase penalties for leaders of auto theft trafficking networks who conspire with others, including juveniles.
Car theft rings are nothing new, the senators noted, but the current trend outpaces national numbers, and the use of juveniles has taken the problem to entirely new levels. Youngsters often are recruited by gangs and others who run stolen car networks because an auto theft conviction does not result in being sent to juvenile detention on the first offense.
“The criminal recruitment will come to an end. We’re going to punish the leaders with harsher penalties to deter the corruption of the young offenders they are introducing into a life of crime,” said Senator Bucco. “And for the under-age recruits who are lifting cars and wreaking havoc on the roadways and neighborhoods, there will be a price to pay for them, as well.”
The senators have been working closely with law enforcement and mayors to address the problem. Senator Codey said it’s a rare week when he does not hear about the problem.
“Our people are desperate,” said Senator Codey. “And this issue goes beyond car thefts. This is a matter of community safety. Cars are being stolen out of driveways and backyards. Homes are being entered. Juveniles are being targeted. This is no longer about thieves hitting soft targets. These new players are bold, aggressive, and unafraid.”