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Anti-car-theft strategy good, but not perfect

Experts divided on chronic offenders

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/12/2009 (3822 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's been lauded as one of the most successful anti-car-theft strategies in Canada, cracking down on thieves who repeatedly steal and joyride vehicles.

But even an architect of the Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy (WATTS) says it's not perfect and experts are scratching their heads about how to stop stolen-vehicle-related deaths.

Last Friday, three young men believed to be repeat auto thieves crashed a stolen H2 Hummer into a Subaru Firefly, killing a 47-year-old married father of one, Zdzislaw Andrzejczak.

Manitoba Public Insurance said there are about 130 Level 3 and Level 4 offenders in the WATSS program who are subject to frequent surveillance by probation officers and police.

About 60 of those 130 are Level 4 offenders, which means they have been convicted and sentenced multiple times for car theft. When the program launched in 2005, there were about 200 level 3 and 4 offenders.

Controlling the hardened few is a problem that has seasoned experts questioning how to stop the deaths.

"I don't know what the heck to do," said Frank Cormier, University of Manitoba criminology professor. "I've never been in favour of locking up young people, but we've been trying to figure out what's the alternative."

He said dealing with "incorrigible car thieves" is a conundrum, even though the WATSS program has been "incredibly effective" at cutting down on youth car-theft activity.

Manitoba Public Insurance statistics on the WATSS program indicate as of May 2009, auto theft in the city dropped 70 per cent from 2004.

Bob Marshall, a former Winnipeg Police Service detective and now a Free Press columnist, admits WATSS has "dramatically reduced" auto theft but the decrease is not due to rehabilitation of problem youth.

"It's working because you've got $100-an-hour babysitters in the form of police officers checking up on these people and the immobilizer put in by the automobile owner that is preventing the thefts," he said.

Erma Chapman, Macdonald Youth Services executive director, said she's seen the influence of programming her organization gives to Level 3 offenders in increasing qualities like empathy.

"The nice thing about working with children and youth is that there's always hope for rehabilitation," she said. "That programming makes a difference."

If youths are released on bail soon after involvment in car theft and are out in the community before sentencing, Chapman said they may form a disconnect from their actions.

"They may wait months and months to go to court, so it's not real for them anymore in terms of any real punishment," she said.

Winnipeg Police Association president Mike Sutherland is skeptical about the limits of programming for certain chronic car thieves. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) should be stiffened so young offenders who commit violent offences are behind bars for longer, he said.

"If you've got a 13, 14, 15, 16-year-old chronic car thief and you have to keep them in jail for three, or four, or five years, then do that," he said.

Rick Linden, a University of Manitoba criminology professor and co-chairman of the Manitoba Auto Theft Task Force, which designed WATSS, said the program has been a huge success. Linden said the program does "as good a job as is humanly possible" on crime prevention, but it's impossible to stop every car thief.





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