New Jersey is trying to shake its old reputation as the "car theft capital of the nation" with a new bill that toughens criminal sanctions for auto theft and permits prosecutors to seek harsher sentences.

A package of bills were signed by Gov. Phil Murphy earlier in July, including creating new charges for stealing or receiving a stolen vehicle and updating sentencing guidelines to provide longer prison terms for individuals with multiple convictions for auto theft. It also makes it a crime to possess vehicle master keys and software that can be used to steal vehicles.

Another bill signed by Murphy expands the definition of a "leader” of an auto theft trafficking ring to include others conspiring to commit the crime, and provides harsher penalties for those convicted of participation in the networks.

“We know that this is a relatively small number of criminals who are responsible for auto thefts in this state, so all of these measures are aimed at stopping these individuals and disrupting their criminal networks,” Murphy said in remarks July 7 at a bill signing event.

Backers of the new law say the changes will help law enforcement to break up "sophisticated" auto theft rings that often use high technology to steal vehicles.

"The rate of auto thefts over the past two years threatens the property and safety of New Jersey residents and places an added strain on law enforcement," said Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Long Branch, a co-sponsor of the measures. "It’s crucial we take decisive and creative action to deter car thieves while also providing additional support to the law enforcement departments and our prosecutors’ offices who are already working hard to curb this disturbing trend."

New Jersey officials said they've taken steps in the past year to reduce auto thefts, which have resulted in a 10% decrease in thefts from January through May of this year, compared to that same period last year. They also point to a 10% decrease in auto thefts for the last four months of 2022, compared to those same months in 2021.

In 2021, more than 14,000 vehicles were reported stolen in New Jersey, according to state law enforcement, a 20% increase over the previous year.

Overall, motor vehicle theft is a growing problem nationwide, with an estimated 932,329 vehicles reported stolen to law enforcement in 2021---an increase of 6% from the previous year and up 17% over 2019, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an anti-crime and insurance fraud nonprofit organization.

Passage of the bills came despite opposition from advocates who argued the harsher criminal penalties were unnecessary and would exacerbate racial disparities.

But backers argue the changes target repeat offenders, who are often ringleaders in sophisticated car theft rings tied to street gangs and other criminal activity.

“These are sophisticated, well-financed, well-organized business operations, more or less corporations," Sen. Richard Codey, D-Roseland, said in a statement. "If we want to get serious about busting up these operations and making headway on car thefts, we must go after the captains of these rings, and not merely be content with arresting the teenage perpetrators who may be in their service."

We thank The Center Square for reprint permission.

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