⚫ NJ lawmakers held a hearing on youth involvement in serious crimes

⚫ Cops believe youth detention should be an option

⚫ Critics don't believe influential youth should be sent to jail for certain offenses

The persistent threats of automobile thefts and home break-ins won't subside anytime soon, unless New Jersey decides to deliver more than just a slap on the wrist to those who are responsible, according to New Jersey legislators and officials.

Youth involvement in these crimes was the focus of a hearing that lasted for more than three hours in the New Jersey Senate on June 13.

"While this is a public safety issue, this is also about preventing our youth from making rash decisions that could severely impact their future," said Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Considering possible solutions, our top priority is ensuring public safety, as well as fairness for both victims and youth."

In 2023, New Jersey recorded another uptick in the number of reported automobile thefts.

Most, officials say, are put into action by members of criminal organizations — but the ring leaders are using minors to do the dirty work, keeping their hands clean and knowing that juveniles will face little to no punishment if they are caught.

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"Unfortunately, the state of New Jersey has gone too far in one direction ... that we're seeing criminal organizations take advantage of it," said Peter Andreyev, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association.

Andreyev told lawmakers that deterring juveniles from prison is a worthy goal, but the same system fails to address risks to the public, by not considering punishment that's equal to the crime.

Jail time for minors?

"Without the threat of detention, we can't effectively build a case against the ringleaders who are adults that pay these juveniles for each car they steal," Andreyev said.

During a town hall event on New Jersey 101.5 on May 30, Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden said minors are being paid $1,500 to $2,500 per stolen vehicle.

While groups agree that New Jersey is struggling to get a handle on rule-breaking juveniles, opinions differ on whether jail time should be part of the conversation.

Jim Sullivan, deputy policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the Garden State should look at every alternative to incarceration before making "life-changing decisions for youth with their whole lives in front of them."

"Our state should expand programs and tools that divert children from the juvenile and legal justice systems, every opportunity we can," Sullivan said.

The Office of the Public Defender, which testified during the hearing, noted that juveniles' brains are still developing when they're being roped into participating in criminal activity — for that reason, they're less likely to control impulses and resist peer pressure.

Michelle Callari, with the public defender's office, said it's "dead wrong" to believe that youth charged with serious crimes in New Jersey are not held accountable for their actions.

If a minor is at least 15 years old, they may be charged as an adult for offenses such as murder, armed robbery, or aggravated sexual assault.

"Even if a case is not waived, it does not mean that children are not facing punishment," Callari said. "Diversion can be more powerful than probation for low-level offenders."

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