Dealing with Juvenile Car Thieves

March 22, 1994

For some misguided youths, stealing a car for a "joy ride" is a rite of passage. The offended party, of course, feels violated, especially when the stolen vehicle is never found or is recovered after costly damage is done. Society, particularly during this period of heightened fear over crime, tilts increasingly in favor of swift and severe punishment.

During such a climate, making a case for leniency seems a fruitless pursuit. Still, the problem is too critical not to consider all available avenues. In Howard County last year, 1,079 cars were stolen, most of them by juveniles. The total represented a 16 percent increase over the previous year. The incidents ranged from the typical to the bizarre.

Take the case of Elizabeth Vaccaro, who had her car stolen recently while waiting for it to be repaired at a Columbia car dealership. Her fiance coincidentally had his car stolen two months earlier from the parking lot outside his Long Reach village condominium.

Earlier this year, police rounded up a handful of young car thieves who belonged to a club called the Low Riders, named in honor of the four-wheel-drive vehicles its members coveted. The club is believed to be responsible for the theft of up to 20 automobiles. The thieves participated in crash derbies around a Columbia lake, then abandoned their booty.

In the midst of this crime wave, Howard County Assistant State's Attorney Bobbie Fine is proposing that first-time youthful offenders have their charges dropped if they agree to enroll in night school and complete their education. School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has given his qualified support to the concept, so long as the program operates within the system's adult education program and produces no additional cost.

In rough draft, however, the Fine proposal would not include youths who have stolen cars. Only misdemeanor, non-violent offenders would be eligible. That would preclude any theft of more than $300.

The state's attorney's office would do well to at least consider young car thieves as possible candidates for Ms. Fine's alternative program. Each case would have to be considered on its merit, but there may be times when a youthful, non-violent indiscretion might not warrant the harshest consequences to make a point.

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