Carjackings and Juvenile Suspects on the Rise in Chicago

(Tribune) Two summers ago when he was 16, the South Side teen carjacked a motorist at a gas station in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, speeding away in the 2009 Kia Rondo.

Now 18, he told a Chicago Tribune reporter that he considers cars to be status symbols. He’s kept ones he’s stolen for as long as a few weeks at a time, he said.

“I like driving around. I like going fast,” said the teen, speaking on condition of anonymity because he’s out on bail for a separate arrest in connection with auto theft. “I feel good being with my hands behind the wheel because I know how to drive, and I drive good.”

As carjackings in Chicago continue to spike, juveniles’ share of arrests for the brazen crime has risen sharply as well. Through May 20 this year, those under 18 accounted for about 6 of every 10 arrests, up from about 35 percent for all of 2016, Police Department statistics show.

However, since so few carjackings end in arrests — only about 9.5 percent of the 2018 cases — it’s difficult to know for certain how large a percentage of the overall problem juveniles make up.

But juveniles’ role in a crime that can happen anywhere in Chicago — a Will County judge was carjacked last week in the popular Greektown restaurant area in the West Loop — has drawn increasing criticism for how the court system handles these young offenders.

A Tribune analysis of Cook County juvenile court records from a recent four-year period found that about a third of the minors arrested by Chicago police for carjackings ended up facing less serious charges such as car theft or even lesser offenses. A carjacking is when someone steals a car after forcefully removing a motorist, sometimes while using a weapon.

As a result of a change in the state law that took effect at the start of 2016, a carjacking charge no longer triggers for those under 18 an automatic transfer to adult court, where the consequences are often far more severe.

Police suggest it’s no coincidence that 2016 is the year carjackings spiked in Chicago. That was also the same year that shootings and killings hit levels unseen for two decades.

“The kids have become enlightened to the consequences,” said Judge Michael Toomin, who presides over the county’s juvenile justice system after many years on the bench at the main criminal courthouse for adults at 26th Street and California Avenue.

The end of automatic transfers

Carjackings continue at high levels in Chicago. While the numbers have fallen 6 percent this year, they remain far above the levels of just a few years ago.

For instance, through the first five months, carjackings totaled 108 in 2015, nearly doubled to 209 in 2016 and then went up by more than half again to 316 last year, the most in a decade, department statistics show. As of the same date this year, Chicago had 297 carjackings.

Carjackings can lead to lengthy prison time for adults. Those convicted of carrying out the crime with a weapon face six to 30 years in prison, four to 15 years if unarmed.

By contrast, many minors convicted of carjacking face probation or, for those with longer criminal histories, a few months in a state prison for juveniles.

And beginning in 2016, a new state law pushed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle disqualified minors 15 through 17 years old from being automatically transferred to adult court if charged with aggravated vehicular hijacking or armed robbery with a firearm.

Opinions vary on if the change contributed to the sharp rise in carjackings or the increase in arrests of juveniles for the crime.

Chicago police Deputy Chief Brendan Deenihan, who oversees an intervention program within the department aimed at preventing juveniles from reoffending, said the criminal element in Chicago is “well versed in a lot of the laws.”

For instance, gang members who need to steal a car to use in a drive-by shooting know to recruit a minor to carry out a carjacking, since if he’s caught the penalties for a juvenile are far less severe, he said.

“Since we changed that (automatic transfer) law, now you saw the juveniles spiking in this category,” Deenihan said.

But juvenile advocates such as Stephanie Kollmann, policy director at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, believe it’s far too soon to blame the law.

Kollmann cautions Chicago residents who fear being the next carjacking victim to consider whether they would truly feel safer if young people were locked up for longer periods.

“Do we want to keep investing in responses that give us a false sense of security and help us exercise our punishment instinct?” she said. “Or do we want to invest in responses that hold people accountable but focus on (rehabilitation) over punishment?” Continue Reading

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