TRENTON – A bipartisan pair of lawmakers propose to boost the criminal penalties for car thefts, in response to a surge fueled by gangs recruiting juveniles to lift the vehicles.

There were 14,320 cars stolen in New Jersey last year, up 22% from the 2020 total. That increased pace has continued in 2022, with more than 9,000 cars stolen in the first half of this year.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said it has become a crisis that goes beyond property crime to being a public danger as thieves speed from crime scenes to elude police.

“This is happening in every neighborhood. It’s happening in every county,” Bucco said. “This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. This isn’t an urban or suburban issue. This is a public safety issue.”

Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, said gangs use juveniles to steal the cars because they don’t go to jail under bail reform, so he wants a specific law that says organizers of car theft rings face mandatory sentences of 10 to 20 years in prison.

“This is a very, very big business,” Codey said. “And what the gangs are doing is turning children into criminals.”

In one case, a 14-year-old girl was found to have been recruited to steal cars, he said.

Bucco and Codey announced the legislation at a news conference Thursday in West Orange, where one day earlier, someone stole a car that had been left running with a child in it. The suspect abandoned the car one block away after noticing the child.

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 people who are organizing these juveniles and sending them out are making big, big money,” Codey said. “We need to get them. Cut off the head of the organization.”

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.

“We now have this whole generation of kids that are out there stealing cars,” Bucco said. “We need to get to that group as well to make sure there’s a deterrence to them so it doesn’t appear just to be a slap on the wrist.”

Codey said the theft rings have started sending juveniles through back yards to try to enter a home through its back door to look for nearby car keys or fobs.

Bucco said a car was stolen on his street. A neighbor whose car needed repairs after an accident left his car at the end of his driveway, with the keys in it, to be towed the following morning. Kids stole the car around 3 a.m., but only got a few blocks before the bent front wheel fell off and the car was abandoned.

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Bucco said the bill will be introduced when the Senate meets for a rare summer session on Monday. He hopes it can be passed when the Legislature returns in the fall.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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