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Gone in 60 Seconds

Do you know where your car is?

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Aaron Urell Erwin didn't bother to wipe Diane Wilson's blood off his clothes before he picked up his friends in her Jeep Cherokee. He murdered her, he explained to me, because he wanted to spend a few hours driving around town in it. The regret in Erwin's voice was genuine, but I suspected it had more to do with the tiny, dismal dog cage of a cell where he now lives, and where he'll spend the next 27 years of his life, than with what became of Wilson. He never thought he'd end up here, he explained to me again and again.

At the time, I didn't understand the significance of that, but I do now. The system taught Erwin that there were no consequences, and when the consequences finally rained down on his head, it shocked him. He's not entirely to blame for that.

Like a growing number of Charlotte kids, Erwin liked to steal cars. Since the consequences for doing so are practically nonexistent, these kids will steal vehicles on a daily basis simply because they want a lift to the mall. Between 2002 and 2003, the crime increased 47 percent in Charlotte, or by about 2,000 more stolen cars than the year before. So far this year, four percent fewer cars have been stolen than last year, but the fever for stolen cars is largely holding steady.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Detective D. Hunter spends his days trying to sort out which kid stole which car. The typical teenage auto thief he interviews has stolen so many cars he can't remember the exact color or description for all of them. Not that it matters, since the system doesn't hold them accountable. A kid who confessed to stealing 40 cars recently walked away with probation. It happens all the time, Hunter said. Odds are he's still stealing them, since most kids start stealing cars again as soon as officers drop them off at home after they're arrested.

A lot of the kids arrested for this crime are 15 and under when they start. Because of a quirk in juvenile law on auto theft and similar crimes, when kids are sentenced for stealing dozens of automobiles, they only get "points" for one offense because the auto thefts are all the same level felony. The points a kid gets for stealing one car aren't enough for a judge to send him to a training school or youth development center. So most go right back out on probation and keep stealing cars. If they rack up enough points before they're 16, they might actually spend six months or more in a center. But when they turn 16, their slate is essentially wiped clean, since by law felonies committed while they're juveniles can't be considered in subsequent cases. That, and plea bargaining, keeps them in business as our criminal justice system -- one of the most under-funded in the nation -- struggles to keep up with them.

But the problem is bigger than thousands of inconvenienced car owners who may spend days or weeks waiting to get their rides back. In Charlotte, auto theft has become a gateway crime for kids like Erwin, the textbook the system uses to teach them that crime has no consequences. Within a few years, the same kids have usually added everything from sexual assault to armed robbery to their repertoire.

"If they're not going to get serious treatment as juveniles for auto theft, they're going to move on," said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sergeant Brenda Jones. "We have seen historically that they do move into more serious crime."

Five years ago, when a group of teenagers stole Charlotte Mayor McCrory's car, he told the Observer he was concerned about a criminal justice system that allows people to commit multiple offenses without serious consequences.

"We've got to enforce the law the first time, not the second, third or fourth time," McCrory said. "At the same time, someone needs to intervene in these kids' lives at an early age."

Unfortunately, "someone" never did, and crime victims continue to pay for that. Five years later, an average of about 2,000 more cars a year are stolen. Five state legislative sessions have passed without city leaders like McCrory making an effort to change the law. In the meantime, all four of the kids who were involved in the theft of McCrory's car, including one who was 13 at the time, are in jail on charges for other crimes they've since committed, says Sergeant Jones.

Jones and the police attorney's office appear to have had enough. They've proposed changes in state law to City Council's community safety committee that would alter the juvenile points system and hold repeat offenders accountable for their juvenile records after they turn 16. Council members, including McCrory, need to get off their duffs and support this legislation with the same passion they do state tourism incentives.

We can either take care of this now, or these kids, and people like Diane Wilson, can pay for it later. The longer we wait, the higher the price.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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