Car theft epidemic in NJ — What’s really driving it, and how to stop it
🚗 Car thefts increased by 4,000 vehicles in NJ since 2020
🚨 Most car thieves are released without bail, and many do it again
🚔 Police urge you not to be an easy target, and tell how to protect yourself
Car theft in New Jersey continues to be a major problem, and leading state and local law enforcers say the problem is far more serious than many realize.
On Thursday, New Jersey 101.5 aired a Town Hall Broadcast on Rising Crime in New Jersey. It was an eye-opening program on many levels, but deep discussion about car theft unveiled just how bad the situation has become and uncovered some of the reasons why.
While car theft has always been an issue in New Jersey, it is no longer a matter of kids boosting a vehicle for a joyride. It has evolved into a sophisticated criminal enterprise that jeopardizes the safety of state residents and has frustrated law enforcement.
In his State of the State Address, Gov. Phil Murphy claimed car thefts had declined in the final four months of 2022. That is a bit misleading since the total number of car thefts are up sharply over the last two years.
While the New Jersey State Police stopped reporting on crime statistics almost two years ago, Maj. Larry Williams testified this month that they estimate 15,644 cars were stolen in 2022. If that is true, it would mark an increase of nearly 4,000 stolen vehicles since 2020.
What is driving the rise in car thefts?
Many in law enforcement point to bail reform as a main driver in the escalation of car thefts.
Under the 2017 law signed by then-governor Chris Christie, the decision to grant bail was largely removed from a judges discretion. They are mostly required to follow an algorithm that 'scores' a criminal offense. Unless this score reaches a certain threshold, Stafford Township Police Chief Thomas Dellane says, "There is a presumption that person will be released."
Unfortunately, Dellane says, "often times we see the same people over and over again because there is no fear (of incarceration) among the people who are perportrating the crime."
Monmouth County Sheriff Shawn Golden says it is the reoffenders that have plagued his county. Golden had a list a reoffenders from Monmouth County, including one suspect who had been arrested and released nine times. Each time, the suspect was set free by a judge because his crimes did not reach the algorithm threshold to keep him jailed or require a high bail.
Making matter worse, Golden says, is that these criminal enterprises now regularly employ juveniles to carry out illegal deeds because they know juveniles will face little to punishment if they are caught.
Golden has been one of the leading advocates of reforming the bail reforms, and stiffening penalties for reoffenders, but he says its critical, "Any reform must include harsh penalties for those who employ juveniles to commit crimes."
Thieves are gonna thieve
It is not just a lack of harsh penalties that cause criminals to reoffend.
Mike Freeman, vice president, NJ State Policemen's Benevolent Association, says stealing cars has become big business.
"You have to remember," Freeman said, "This is their job. They are going back to work. This is how they make money."
Freeman agreed tougher penalties were needed for repeat offenders, but notes, "They don't care if they get arrested. It's the cost of doing business.
What is being done
Gov. Murphy announced a crackdown on car theft weeks ago. He endorsed stronger penalties for stealing a car or possessing a stolen vehicle as well as funding for anti-gang initiatives.
In the legislature, there is wide agreement something must be done, but little common ground on exactly what. Bills that would impose harsher penalties have been approved, but there have been no agreement on any changes to the current bail system.
State Sen. Joe Lagana, D-Paramus, urged his legislative colleagues to "remember that in all of these instances there are victims." At the same time, Lagana cautioned, "We don't want to kill a mosquito with a bazooka, so we're trying to be cognizant that we're not being too harsh."
At a recent legislative hearing on the legislation, civil rights groups warned lawmakers changing the current rules for bail could have "an astounding economic and social cost."
Laura Cohen, director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School, said any changes could have severe and adverse consequences for black and brown youth. "Black youth are at least 18 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth," Cohen said, "Even though we also know children break the law at roughly equal rates across racial and ethnic lines."
The ACLU of New Jersey's Joe Johnson blamed police for the rise in auto theft. He claimed arrests were made in less than 10% of all stolen vehicle cases. "People are committing auto theft in the state of New Jersey because the data shows that they will not get caught," Johnson said.
What can you do — Don't be an easy target
While it does not appear there will be help on the way from Trenton government any time soon, the best way to protect yourself from having your car stolen is to lock your vehicle.
Chief Dellane says this is a point of great frustration for law enforcement. "Don't leave your car unlocked. Take your key fob and put it in the house. Don't leave it in the car."
Organized car theft rings often target high-end or newer vehicles. Chris Devanney of Acteon Security says it's easy to tell if the car is unlocked. "On these cars, the mirrors fold in when the car is locked. If they are out, the thief knows the car is unlocked."
Dellane also says if you see someone suspicious in your neighborhood, call the police. He says many people don't want to bother law enforcement with their suspicions. "We're here 24/7," Dellane says, "That's what we're here for. Please call us."
When you are not parking in your garage or driveway, try to park where there is light. "Criminals don't like to be seen," he says.