Following a long decline, the number of carjackings in Chicago has risen sharply in recent years. In 2017, there were nearly 1,000 incidents, roughly 700 more than in 2014.
In response to the problem, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others are pushing for a state law that may sound good at first blush but would be miserable public policy.
The proposed law is not, to begin with, focused only on the violent crime of carjacking. It would close a so-called legal “loophole” that exists only for the sake of fairness. And it would not work.
Allow me to explain each of these points:
It isn’t carjacking. The offense targeted by House Bill 4729 and proposed amendments is not carjacking – or assault, robbery, or any related violent offense. The bill, far more broadly and dangerously, would make it easier to convict someone of felony possession of a stolen motor vehicle by allowing a court to “infer that a person knows or recklessly disregards” a car is stolen if he or she happens to be in a vehicle “without the consent of the owner.”
About 20,000 cars are stolen in Illinois each year, the vast majority of them without any violence. To be sure, 3 of every 4 car thefts in Chicago happen while the car is simply parked on the street. To react to the problem of carjackings by targeting any occupant of any possible stolen vehicle is an irresponsible game of bait-and-switch.
It isn’t fair. Although possession of a stolen motor vehicle is a nonviolent crime, it is an extremely serious charge — a Class 2 felony carrying a prison sentence of 3 to 7 years. That’s because current enforcement is aimed at people who know they are in a stolen car. The rest are usually charged with a Class A misdemeanor, criminal trespass to a vehicle, when there is no proof they stole the car.
So that “giant loophole” Emanuel wants to close? It is nothing more than being charged with misdemeanor trespassing instead of a felony … because there’s no evidence that you knew you were breaking the law at all.
You bought a car off Craigslist not knowing the title was faked? You borrowed your neighbor’s car to run to the store, unaware that it was reported stolen 12 years and three “owners” ago? Your kid rode to a concert with his buddy who didn’t have permission to take the family car? (Yes, passengers can be arrested for this, too.)
Under the proposed law, people in any of these situations could be charged with a Class 2 felony instead of a misdemeanor, and would much more likely be held in jail or juvenile detention pending trial.
It won’t work. The mayor’s office says the bill is modeled after a California law that’s been on the books since the 1960s. His office doesn’t mention that although the law has been given decades to “work,” California is one of the worst places in the country for car theft. Six of the top ten metro areas with the highest rates of car theft are in California. Chicago is not in in the top 100.
State lawmakers should stop chasing rabbits whenever the mayor of Chicago claims, without proof, that a particular crime requires a new “tool” for the police. Sentencing is not a policing tool. And the small number of carjackings in 2014 demonstrates that harsh penalties are not responsible for public safety. Yet the most dog-eared page in Emanuel’s political playbook appears to read: “Divert scrutiny of the city’s response to violent crime with a demand for more prison time from state legislators.”
Springfield passed penalties for nonviolent gun possession last year when Emanuel characterized Illinois laws as weak – despite the fact that Illinois already was the sixth most punitive state in the nation, and despite analysis showing the penalty was likely to add 2,500 prison-years of time without saving a single life. And now the mayor is at it again.
Like nine out of ten shootings, nine out of ten carjackings did not end in an arrest by the Chicago Police Department by the end of the year. This is not the fault of state sentencing laws.
Giving more felony convictions and prison years to a very broad group of people because police can’t identify the small number who are committing violent crime isn’t a public safety strategy. It is wanton state interference with employment, housing, education, child support and the host of other factors that contribute to stable families and communities.
Our state and our city, which have shred social services and education, cannot afford more of this destruction.
Stephanie Kollmann is the Policy Director at the Children and Family Justice Center, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.
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