MIDDLETOWN — Days after New Jersey announced measures aimed at cracking down on vehicle thefts, officials came together in Monmouth County on Tuesday to encourage a statewide move toward stricter punishments for the individuals responsible for the thefts.

“Our judiciary cannot continue to act like a Michelin star restaurant offering topnotch service to criminals who are committing these crimes,” Middletown Mayor Tony Perry said during a press conference outside of town hall. “We cannot continue to sit here and defend criminals for criminal acts.”

Towns across New Jersey, in both suburban and urban areas, have seen a major spike in the number of motor vehicle thefts over the past couple of years. And elected leaders and law enforcement claim the perpetrators are becoming more brazen, targeting not only vehicles, but people and homes as well.

"The safety of our community is now being threatened on a daily basis, and action needs to be taken," said Shrewsbury Mayor Erik Anderson.

Robert Pisani, a resident of Middletown, said there were "zero consequences" for the individuals responsible for two separate thefts of Range Rovers from his driveway. With current bail protocols, he said, perpetrators are free in a matter of days, and free to engage in the same criminal practices all over again.

"This is going to escalate further and further and further," Pisani told reporters.

New Jersey was home to more than 14,000 vehicle thefts in 2021, according to the New Jersey State Police. Thefts in 2022 are on pace to be at least 50% greater than in 2020.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday announced a $10 million investment in license plate recognition technology, as one way to combat motor vehicle theft. On the same day, it was announced that New Jersey would once again allow cops to use car chases to capture vehicle thieves.

"We need stiffer penalties. We can not continue with catch-and-release when it comes to vehicle thefts," said Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden. "Something needs to be done to stop the madness."

At the press event, Assemblywoman Vicky Flynn, R-Monmouth, announced that she and Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger, R-Monmouth, would be introducing legislation that would require mandatory minimum sentences for certain auto-theft crimes — for example, those that involve the recruitment of minors to steal vehicles, or incidents that escalate into the burglary of a victim's home.

"People are frightened in our district. I'm frightened," Flynn said. "I have new drivers in my house and I'm worried about their safety every time they pull up in the driveway."

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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