Underage car thieves are the target of new legislation that substantially toughens the penalties even for first offenses.
The New Jersey bill answers both a statewide jump in car thefts and a growing trend of organized crime rings recruiting juveniles to steal cars. Lawmakers explained in a press conference that criminals know juveniles get lighter punishment.
As a result, “it's a catch and release, a revolving door,” Orange Police Department Director Todd Warren told CBS News.
Theoretically, the bill poses a good solution to a dangerous trend. What gets lost is the risk of young people paying a big price for a careless mistake.
Crime Rings Target Juvenile Offenders
More than 14,000 cars were stolen in New Jersey in 2021, and thefts were already up 37% as of August 2022. Urban and suburban communities are the most targeted areas; increasingly, thieves are going into houses and stealing the car keys.
“It can happen anytime, day or night, and they will confront the owner,” said Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll.
The law enforcement and judicial communities fear this spike in brazen thefts will soon lead to a deadly outcome. And that's especially worrisome with growing juvenile involvement in auto theft — with some offenders as young as 13. Bounties of $1,000 or more per car — and the adrenaline rush — can make auto theft irresistible to some juveniles.
Juvenile Offenders Face Stiffer Penalties
Currently, juveniles are given light sentences and rarely face detention for auto theft, especially for a first offense. The proposed bill gives teens caught stealing or receiving stolen cars 60 days of community service for a first offense, with repeat offenders facing at least 60 days in juvenile lockup.
The proposed law discourages adults from recruiting teens by upgrading certain auto theft offenses if they include a juvenile. Bumping up these offenses from second- to first-degree effectively doubles the potential sentence.
State Sen. Anthony Bucco told the press there is some leniency built into the revised law, but “we've got to provide a deterrent. We have to provide a consequence for those who decide to get into this criminal enterprise.”
One Mistake Can Equal A Lifetime of Regret
This “tough on crime” approach has the potential to solve a major problem, but it also increases the chance of doing real damage to the lives of the youngest offenders.
In New Jersey, juvenile justice has adopted a more rehabilitative model instead of the harsher approach taken with adults. That's a positive, but it doesn't minimize the seriousness and long-term consequences of criminal allegations against minors. One youthful mistake can have a lifelong ripple effect on an adult's education and employment.
Parents are encouraged to talk to a knowledgeable attorney who can answer questions and outline a defense. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has many years of experience in criminal law that specifically relates to juveniles.
Call Attorney Lento and his team at 888-535-3686 or reach out online to discuss your case.