Can lowering criminal charges deter car thefts in Monroe County? MCSO tries new strategy

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office says it is intentionally lowering criminal charges on some young people accused of stealing cars in the Greater Rochester area because it allows the law enforcement agency to temporarily detain suspects who would otherwise be released on appearance tickets under New York’s bail law.

The sheriff’s office disclosed the strategy Thursday during an on-the-record roundtable conversation with reporters about the agency’s ongoing efforts to combat car thefts in Monroe County.

James Coco, a Monroe County Sheriff’s Office investigator, said the agency has pivoted to charge 16- and 17-year-olds with a misdemeanor instead of a felony when they are arrested in connection with a stolen vehicle.

The misdemeanor charge sends the young person to Monroe County Family Court, where a judge can issue interventions that include holding the suspect in the Children’s Detention Center, Coco said.

“A lot of times, the immediate intervention is really what we need ― a time out now,” he said. “We can’t wait for the court system to catch up because in the meantime, how many more cars are going to be stolen? How many more crimes are they going to be involved in?”

Alternatively, if charged with a felony, 16- and 17-year-olds would be sent to a different court called Youth Part, which falls under New York’s bail laws, Coco said. The felony, criminal possession of stolen property, is not a bail-eligible offense, so the individual would be released on an appearance ticket.

Enacted in 2020, New York state’s bail reform law sought to reduce pretrial detention and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, according to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Critics of the changes to bail eligibility in New York state argue that the law has made communities less safe.

Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter talks with Chili resident Barbara Wise, whose Hyundai Elantra was stolen last month, during a roundtable discussion with news media on Oct. 26, 2023. Wise recently retired but had to go back to work part-time to make up for the financial loss.

Sheriff Todd Baxter said the interventions during that “time out,” which can include immediate contact with probation and counselors for young people and their families, have resulted in fewer rearrests.

The lesser charge is one strategy sheriff’s deputies are employing in an attempt to bring down car thefts, which breached nearly 4,000 vehicles in Monroe County this year alone.

More:Rochester has highest car theft increase in the U.S. Most suspects are 13 to 18 years old

Is the Monroe County Stolen Vehicle Task Force working?

This year saw a spike in the number of car thefts across Monroe County, largely due to a security flaw in Kia and Hyundai models that make the cars easy to steal.

Last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul said an explosion of car thefts nationwide ― driven by a viral TikTok video which exposed a security flaw in Kia and Hyundai models ― reached extreme heights in Rochester and Buffalo.

Car thefts in Monroe County are up 345% from last year, Hochul said, compared to a 213% increase in Erie County and a 20% increase in New York City.

In July, MCSO pulled together a “Stolen Vehicle Task Force,” comprised of 12 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

About once a week, the task force uses unmarked police cars to patrol the county and identify suspected stolen vehicles, Coco said. They look for smashed windows and mismatched plates, sometimes following the vehicle until it parks and the driver can easily be apprehended. Other times, the undercover units will call for marked police cars and a helicopter backup to investigate further.

Since July, the task force has run 11 details which resulted in the recovery of 21 stolen vehicles and 31 arrests, the sheriff’s office said.

More:Most Kia and Hyundais are still vulnerable to car theft. Here’s how to protect yours

Kayla Canne reports on community justice and safety efforts for the Democrat and Chronicle. Get in touch at kcanne@gannett.com or on Twitter @kaylacanne.

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