SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Carjackings have surged during the pandemic. They're on the rise in most major U.S. cities, and many of the suspects involved are juveniles, which has created a dilemma for officials. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: I'm walking down an alley in a North Side Chicago neighborhood. There's lots of cars parked in open spaces here, but there's also a small garage. And a couple of weeks ago, at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, that's where Amy Blumenthal backed her car in to unload her groceries.
AMY BLUMENTHAL: And all of a sudden, I heard something and looked up. And there was a boy with a COVID mask on holding a gun just inches from my face.
CORLEY: He told her to hand over her keys. Another young male told her to hurry up. They let her keep her house keys, then jumped in the car and sped off. Police noticed their erratic driving and gave chase. They crashed into a building and were arrested. Blumenthal couldn't believe it when she learned their ages - 15 and 13 years old.
BLUMENTHAL: That made it both sadder and scarier, to have a 13-year-old with a gun.
CORLEY: There's no national data for carjackings, but police in many cities and suburbs now keeping track say it's a big problem. In 2020, Minneapolis cases shot up by more than 300%. Suspects included juveniles between 11 and 17 years old. Other cities saw huge increases, too, including New Orleans, Kansas City, Louisville, Ky., and Washington, D.C. Last year in Chicago, there were 1,400 carjacking incidents.
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LORI LIGHTFOOT: This is an issue of top of mind for both me and the entire police department.
CORLEY: That's Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who says it's important to treat the carjacking problem holistically. That means filing charges against youthful offenders, but also offering supports to help them stay out of the criminal justice system.
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LIGHTFOOT: We've got to intervene with these kids; there's no question. But we've got to bring the message right to the young people and let them know that if they decide to go in this direction, to rob someone at gunpoint, that we have to and we will hold them accountable.
CORLEY: Of course, the big question is, what's going on, and why now are juveniles threatening and frightening residents as they hijack vehicles? Police say it's not just one thing. Sometimes it's about the thrill of a joyride. It may be stealing a car in order to commit other crimes anonymously. Christian Terry has a few ideas. He's the program director of C.H.A.M.P.S., an organization which mentors African American and Latinx boys and young men.
CHRISTIAN TERRY: I am actually one of the original C.H.A.M.P.S. members. I was a freshman.
CORLEY: Now 21, Terry says C.H.A.M.P.S. changed his life. He says during the group's virtual sessions, they've definitely talked about carjackings.
TERRY: Some is just saying like, man, these carjackings is only happening 'cause they're - the youth is bored right now. They don't have anything else to do, and they just think this is a game. They don't really know how serious it is till they truly get in trouble.
CORLEY: A change in Illinois law five years ago ended the automatic transfer of juveniles to adult courts when a weapon is used in a crime. Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx says her office filed charges in 80% of the carjacking cases involving juveniles last year. It's up to a judge to decide what happens next - for example, detention, a release to parents or some type of counseling.
KIM FOXX: It's - part of juvenile court's mandate is to look at young people and see, one, how do we hold them accountable for their actions? And what is it that they need? If you've got a 12-year-old or 11-year-old or 14-year-old who's out there engaging in this behavior, there is something wrong.
CORLEY: Chicago's police department expanded a carjacking task force. Concerned residents meet up at gas stations to prevent any carjackings there. And the city reached out to youth organizations for help. Vondale Singleton, the founder of the C.H.A.M.P.S. program, says mentoring is particularly important during the pandemic, when there's been so much disruption with schools, sports and other activities for young people.
VONDALE SINGLETON: When they in our care, we don't have or see these incidents of violence, of crime, of disrespect because we know how to treat these young men. We know how to educate and talk.
CORLEY: For the two young teenagers who forced Amy Blumenthal to turn over her car keys, it's a different story. They face criminal charges.
BLUMENTHAL: I'm hoping that they are young enough that this scares the daylights out of them in a way that leads to good change.
CORLEY: That's the hope of many who want a scourge of vehicular hijackings to come to an end.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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