TV-6 Investigates: Young car thieves challenging juvenile court

Published: Aug. 23, 2017 at 8:18 PM CDT
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After a brief summer lull, more kids are stealing cars yet again. And police say they're arresting kids they've seen before. So what is happening with these juveniles once they get arrested?

TV-6 Investigates sat in juvenile court for months tracking several cases from start to finish. Juvenile Court is a problem-solving court. The judges try to balance seeking justice with rehabilitating kids caught committing crimes.

TV-6 Investigates saw a wide variety of circumstances in court, from repeat offenders to kids who seem to be getting the help they need. But we won't know how successful the courts are because nearly all records in juvenile court are sealed from the public. Our only window is through the eyes of the judges, court staff, and our own research. The biggest takeaway we saw, is it's the younger kids who are making this process even harder.

In April, Moline police got a call from Davenport police. Based on a tip, they tracked down a stolen black Kia Sportage from Lujacks in Moline. Davenport officers said kids were behind the wheel. Moline police used stop sticks to corral the car. Five kids tried to run but were arrested.

One of them is a teenager wearing red in one of the pictures we found. He's 17 and he posted pictures to his Facebook page. Police sources said the black Kia Sportage behind him fits the description of the Kia he was caught in. In court, the prosecutor also said the teen had a loaded gun with him. His story is like so many others.

"I think that the teenage juveniles involved in that type of conduct are particularly susceptible to letting that group dynamic make some really really terrible choices," said Rock Island County's presiding Juvenile Judge Pete Church.

He can't discuss specific cases that he's seen. But he believes the recent car theft trend is another dangerous fad.

"My sense is that there's probably a group of really not too many individuals that probably would be what you call the leaders, there were a lot of followers involved in this, and there have been a few leaders and I hope their cases have been adjudicated," said Church.

The teen pleaded guilty to both felony charges against him. He's awaiting sentencing in Illinois. He has also pleaded guilty to two felony theft charges in Iowa. But before he was even sentenced for those, he was charged with stealing more cars while also wearing a GPS ankle bracelet. Those charges are pending. Scott County's Juvenile Prosecutor Dion Trowers said they can't help the kids until the court process finishes.

"We can't start the programming until a juvenile has been sentenced," said Trowers.

He also told us the younger ages of these kids has become even more challenging.

"You're exposing them to kids that have more of a criminal history, criminal background," said Trowers.

Rock Island County statistics show the age group of kids connected to car thefts has shifted into 12, 13 and 14-year-olds. Scott County has seen a similar trend. TV-6 Investigates saw a 12-year-old in Church's courtroom wearing a sweatshirt affiliated with a local gang. His Facebook profile lists the same gang symbols we saw on the other teen's page.

The 12-year-old pleaded guilty to burglary and escape, after stealing a purse from an unlocked car in Rock Island and cutting off the ankle bracelet he was issued previously. His age worries outside experts like Western Illinois University Professor Barry McCrary, who spent years working in Pennsylvania's juvenile justice systems.

"The earlier a young person starts committing crimes, the likelihood of them committing crimes as an adult increases dramatically," said McCrary.

Church said it's harder to treat younger kids.

"Not all the services that we have available are geared to somebody who might be 12 or 13 years old, you might be thinking more like 15 or 16," said Church.

Both Iowa and Illinois limit what types of crimes a child must commit and how old a child is before they're even allowed to be sent to juvenile institutions. Church said judges have to weigh a number of factors before they can send a minor anywhere.

"Before you take a child or a minor in this case out of the home, you have to look at all the available options for services before that's done," said Church.

McCrary said that's good policy to help prevent young children from becoming institutionalized.

"You might have subconsciously learned that you can function in prison, in jail, in the detention center, because you've been in that environment," said McCrary.

Church hopes this car theft fad is over.

"My experience has been there are some phases that tend to happen and then to a certain extent, tend to run their course, let's hope this has run its course," said Church.

There may be hope for some kids involved in such trends. We saw one other juvenile in Church's courtroom. His Facebook profile also shows the same gang symbols and the same types of pictures we saw with the other two kids. He pleaded guilty to driving a stolen car. Church sentenced him to two years probation and a term at Arrowhead Youth and Family services.

But during the hearing, Church reviewed the teen's behavior reports from the juvenile jail and a temporary stay at Arrowhead. Church told him they were some of the best he's ever seen and encouraged him to keep it up.