Assembly panel green lights bills aimed at reducing car thefts

By: - March 23, 2023 7:13 pm

The bills' supporters say they are intended to address a post-pandemic spike in car thefts state officials say has abated. (Getty Images)

The Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a series of bills aimed at reducing car thefts in New Jersey over the opposition of advocates who called the harsher penalties unneeded and warned they would worsen existing racial disparities.

The bill package advanced Thursday would create new crimes for car theft and receiving a stolen vehicle, allow prosecutors to seek extended sentences for repeat violators, and create new rules that make it easier to detain certain repeat offenders before trial, among other things.

“They’re good bills. I think they address the needs of our constituents. Something had to be done to change the system to change car thefts, and we felt these bills would help address that situation,” said Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-Bergen), the committee chair and a sponsor of two of the car theft bills advanced Thursday.

The package of bills is the latest legislative attempt to address residents’ concerns about post-pandemic crime and against car thefts in particular, which state officials said were up sharply in the first few months of 2022.

Attorney General Matt Platkin, in an opinion piece published on earlier this month, said car thefts have fallen below their five-year average in recent months, and he accused unnamed elected officials of falsely claiming car thefts are still on the rise for political gain.

But lawmakers’ attention remains on car thefts. One of the bills advanced Thursday would create a new class of charges for stealing a car and receiving a stolen car and would allow prosecutors to seek extended sentences for those with at least two past car theft convictions.

Critics warned the measure is unneeded and would compound New Jersey’s existing criminal justice disparities while doing little to reduce crime.

“We do not need knee-jerk reactionary legislation to address these declining trends,” said Emily Schwartz, senior counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s criminal justice reform program.

Schwartz noted that many of the criminal justice bills advanced Thursday lack a racial impact statement required by state law and a fiscal note that would allow the committee to accurately consider the economic costs of the legislation.

“I have compassion for anybody who gets involved in the criminal world,” Swain said. “Obviously, we don’t want people, especially young people, getting involved in crime, but at the same time, for somebody to wake up to get ready to go to work or drop their kids off at school and not to find their car in their driveway, that’s not acceptable either.”

The package includes a bill that would make it a crime — carrying a penalty of up to 18 months’ imprisonment — to possess, for an unlawful purpose, vehicle master keys, key fobs, and software that can emulate key fobs.

Others would create separate charges for leading or participating in a network trafficking stolen vehicles and allow judges to order juveniles charged with car thefts to be kept on house arrest.

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) questioned whether the latter provision would be effective in reducing reoffense.

Webber said the confinement might have little impact on a juvenile because it would allow students to continue school, work, and after-school activities, among other things, and would grant judges the discretion to approve other activities not listed in the bill.

Most of the bills in the package are ready for full votes before either chamber that could come as early as next Thursday. Two — the home detention bill and another that would make it easier for judges to order pretrial detainment for repeat offenders — lack companion bills in the Senate.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.