WEST ORANGE — Frustrated by a record rise in stolen autos, North Jersey politicians and police chiefs on Thursday promised a crackdown, including a doubling of penalties for the leaders of auto theft rings."We may not get you tomorrow, but damn it, we're coming for you," said state Sen. Richard Codey, who announced plans to introduce legislation that would give law enforcement new tools and freedom to fight modern organized criminal gangs he likens to "corporations."
Codey, an Essex County Democrat, was joined at a news conference at West Orange Town Hall by his co-sponsor, Morris County state Sen. Anthony Bucco, as well as the Morris prosecutor and mayors or police chiefs from a dozen other North Jersey towns that have also seen an uptick in car heists.
The conference followed a report Thursday by the USA TODAY Network New Jersey that documented a 23% increase in vehicle thefts so far this year, based on state police data. A record 14,389 vehicles were reported stolen in New Jersey in 2021, and the state is on pace to shatter that mark again this year, with 9,093 thefts reported through July 24.
"Let's not confuse anything: This is a crisis in New Jersey," said Bucco, a Republican.
While vehicles of all types are being stolen, criminals often target high-end models such as Mercedes, BMWs and Audis. which can be found unlocked in suburban North Jersey driveways. Beyond the surge in thefts, authorities say, they're worried about the increasingly brazen tactics, which include thefts in broad daylight and carjacking. The operations are run by career criminals but often recruit juveniles to scout for and swipe the cars, police said.
The new legislation, which Codey and Bucco hope to introduce next week in Trenton, would require a juvenile who is found to have received a stolen vehicle to serve 60 days of community service. Any young offender previously adjudicated as a delinquent for a motor vehicle charge would get a minimum 60-day period of incarceration in a juvenile facility.
“These gangs are turning children into criminals by recruiting juveniles to steal cars,” Codey said.
Bucco and other officials at the conference said the state's bail reform efforts as well as curbs on police pursuits had helped spur the increase. The proposed legislation does not directly address bail reform, and New Jersey acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin in April abruptly reversed new police-pursuit restrictions, specifically to allow police to chase car thieves.
The attorney general's directive was welcomed by law enforcement, but Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll said authorities need more help from Trenton to combat these gangs, which employ juveniles to scout wealthy neighborhoods for unlocked luxury cars with the fobs left inside.
In more and more cases, thieves will look through windows for fobs and later enter the home, sometimes with the residents inside, Carroll said.
“The numbers are disturbing, but more troubling is the way the thefts are occurring,” Bucco said. “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.”
The majority of the luxury-vehicle thefts that are fueling the overall rise are for resale on the foreign market, but Carroll said many of them are used for their "anonymity" to commit other, often violent crimes.
He and others, including Orange Police Director Todd Warren, applauded the new legislation. The bill could potentially double the prison sentences for "ringleaders" convicted of conspiracy charges related to auto theft if it can be proved they recruited the juveniles into their enterprise.
"We had a young man who was arrested 39 times," said Warren, previously a warden and director of the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center. "How many opportunities do we have to give to people to commit crimes, cause hurt or damage and create these types of climates in our communities where we're not safe? I think we have to take a look at the Legislature, because law enforcement is frustrated. It's catch-and-release, a revolving door, and it's frustrating because now the residents question law enforcement as if we're not doing our job. Bail reform has to be fixed."
Under the state's Criminal Justice Reform program enacted in 2017, defendants deemed a risk to the community can be kept in jail before trial while others are released, typically under conditions that include regular pretrial reporting to the court or electronic monitoring. Monetary bail is no longer an equation in the release determination.
New Jersey voters approved the reform by constitutional amendment in 2014.
Others expressed frustration that the public doesn't seem to be getting the message about how these crimes, and potentially violent confrontations, could easily be prevented if owners locked their cars and doors and secured their keys.
Maplewood Police Chief Jim DeVaul clarified that his frustration is with the crimes, not the victims.
"I'm frustrated for the victims, not with them," he said. "That's important."
“Our people are desperate,” Codey said. “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.”
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on Morristown Daily Record: NJ car theft bill targets rise in crime, ringleaders