Bills to toughen penalties against car thieves advance, despite objections

By: - December 20, 2022 7:13 am

Antonne Henshaw, who counsels at-risk youth, testified before the Senate judiciary committee on Dec. 19, 2022, and told legislators that he stole cars as a teenager because he was homeless. He asked lawmakers to invest in solutions to help troubled youth recover. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

State legislators wrestling with how to curb a statewide spike in car thefts have heard opinions from just about everybody in recent months — from police and prosecutors asking for tougher penalties to social justice advocates warning that focusing on punishment threatens to undo years of criminal justice reform.

But Monday, they heard from someone new — a reformed car thief.

“I used to be one of those guys. I used to steal cars, and I was fairly good at it,” Antonne Henshaw said. “Why don’t we have, for lack of a better term, the car thieves sitting at the table … adding to the discussion?”

Henshaw’s testimony came at the end of a four-hour hearing of the Senate’s judiciary committee, which met to mull nine bills primarily aimed at cracking down on car thieves. Lawmakers and spectators who had just been wearily checking the clock sat up straighter to listen as Henshaw shared his story.

He told lawmakers he started stealing cars at 13 as a way to make money and survive the streets after he ran away from home. He did it for five years.

After spending 30 years in prison for other crimes, he now studies criminal justice at Rutgers University and counsels at-risk youth.

“My service is my redemption,” he said.

Henshaw, like several criminal justice reformers who spoke before him, urged lawmakers to invest in solutions that address the root causes of car theft and other crimes, such as a lack of jobs and opportunities for at-risk youth, and reject proposals that punish instead of rehabilitate juvenile offenders. One of the bills lawmakers considered Monday would expand penalties for anyone, including juveniles, convicted of car theft and related offenses.

“Nobody ever asked me: What did I need to not do this,” Henshaw said of his youthful car thieving. “I look at a lot of these bills as we’re going backwards.”

But the panel unanimously advanced six bills to increase the penalties for carjacking and motor vehicle theft generally, for illegal use of car master keys, and for people convicted as repeat offenders or leaders of car theft and trafficking rings. They also unanimously passed a bill to require vehicle identification numbers to be stamped on vehicles’ catalytic converters, a pricy part of a car’s exhaust system often targeted by thieves.

An eighth bill — the one that included beefed-up penalties for juveniles — also advanced, despite opposition from Sens. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) and Michael Testa (R-Cumberland). The committee held off, at the sponsor’s request, on voting on a ninth bill that would bar towing companies from charging owners of stolen cars to free their vehicles from towing storage.

The votes came after testimony from police and prosecutors from Bergen County, the state Attorney General’s Office, and New Jersey State Police, who all largely supported the legislation under consideration.

New Jersey State Police project 15,644 cars will be stolen this year, up from 14,405 last year, and 11,770 in 2020, Major Larry Williams testified.

“The data does not lie,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who supported all the bills.

Pushback from reformers

Data shows that car theft, despite rising since 2020, remains lower than a decade ago, when police fielded 16,471 reports of vehicle thefts. It’s also been dropping in recent months.

Reformers who testified against the bills pushed back on the data, pointing out that police only nab offenders in 7% of cases.

Such a low clearance rate shows “we actually don’t know who is committing these offenses and why,” said Laura Cohen, director of the Rutgers Center on Criminal Justice, Youth Rights, and Race and the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic.

Joe Johnson, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, told lawmakers New Jersey has more car thieves “because the police practically never catch them.”

“What will adding criminal penalties do when we are only applying criminal penalties in 7% of cases?” Johnson said

The state should not roll back 20 years of progress in criminal justice reform every time there is a small spike in crime, Johnson added.

Johnson and Cohen pointed to New Jersey’s dubious distinction of having the worst racial disparities in the nation in juvenile justice, with Black youth almost 18 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, even though Black and white youth commit most offenses at similar rates. The bills passed Monday threaten to reinforce those disparities, they said.

Emily Schwartz of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice reminded lawmakers of a 2018 state law that requires a racial impact assessment of criminal justice legislation. No such assessment had been done for any of the bills considered Monday, Schwartz said of the legislative package she called a “knee-jerk reaction … that only bolsters a racist system of mass incarceration.”

After Williams testified that many luxury cars are being trafficked to overseas buyers, Henshaw asked legislators why they failed to target commercial culprits.

“There’s no penalties for the corporations that are buying these and shipping these,” Henshaw said. “I have no ship. I have no cargo container. These are companies. They’re not mentioned in this legislation, and they should be. They should be held financially liable for what’s going on.”

Critics also questioned why legislators focused on punishing thieves when Williams testified that car theft is typically a “crime of opportunity” facilitated by motorists who leave cars idling unattended at the curb or driveway or store their key fobs inside their parked cars.

Testa took offense to such criticism, calling it “victim-blaming.”

Some lawmakers said the bills don’t go far enough.

Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) grilled Stephan Finkel from the Attorney General’s Office about police pursuits of stolen cars. State officials had suspended such chases in December 2021 because of safety risks but reinstated them last April after car thefts jumped. The office promised to evaluate the impact of the pursuit policy by the end of this year to determine whether to continue it or suspend it again.

“Knowing that reinstating the pursuit policy has had an impact on the matter, why wouldn’t we just say we’re going to extend it?” Bucco said.

Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester), a former state police trooper, recounted the story of a family killed Christmas morning after their car got hit during a police pursuit.

“To put a pursuit policy in place and expect that to be the guaranteed norm, you always have to ask yourself: Is the juice worth the squeeze?” Madden said. “You’re talking about a stolen car, but the potential loss of life to the officer and the citizens really has to be taken into consideration.”

Judges appointed

In other business, the committee approved more than a dozen nominees for appointments to various state positions, including five judges.

The appointments reduce a longstanding judicial shortage that has crippled the courts to 64 vacancies, down from a record high last spring of 75.

Those judicial appointments also didn’t come without controversy.

A former client of nominee Laurie Poppe — a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2017 — urged the committee to reject her nomination to succeed former Ocean County Family Court Judge Deborah L. Gramiccioni. Sam John told legislators he was an unhappy ex-client of Poppe, who’s a divorce and family law attorney. He called her nomination “a consolation prize” for her failure to unseat former Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman in Somerset County’s 16th Legislative District in 2017 and urged them to “stop the cycle of cronyism.”

They voted unanimously to advance her nomination anyway.

The committee approved four other attorneys to be judges on the state Superior Court:

  • Christopher A. Edwards of West Windsor. Edwards works as senior counsel to Attorney General Matt Platkin.
  • Laurence J. Bravman of East Brunswick. Bravman is a general practice attorney.
  • Daniel M. Kurkowski of West Cape May. Kurkowski is a labor, civil rights, and criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor of West Cape May.
  • Dean R. Marcolongo of Marmora. Marcolongo is Cape May County Surrogate.

The full Senate then went on to approve the judges Monday afternoon, in its last session before the holidays.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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