Courts urged to use tougher powers
Tough powers to combat car crime in Northern Ireland are not being used by the judiciary to punish persistent offenders, campaigners claimed.
Stiff sentences of up to 14 years imprisonment for causing death after stealing a car have not been imposed and too many vehicle thieves are being released having served a fraction of the time, Families Bereaved Through Car Crime (FBTCC) said.
Recently in Ballymurphy in west Belfast a woman was pulled from her car and the vehicle burned.
FBTCC spokesman Tommy Holland praised police who have helped reduce crime levels in West Belfast by 84% during the last decade but said prison terms should be longer.
"It is a slap in the face to the police as well as the community," he said.
New offences were introduced in 2004 following lobbying by the anti-car crime group, which wanted to tackle persistent offenders. But Mr Holland said he was not aware of it being used by the courts.
"If there are recidivist car criminals continuing to be involved in that then they should get the full capacity of the law."
Aggravated vehicle taking causing death or grievous bodily injury carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. The law was changed to ensure road traffic legislation took into account any driving offences after a vehicle had been unlawfully taken.
Mr Holland said: "We have not seen it being used with any of the persistent criminals, we heard it mentioned in one case but it was just mentioned.
"Like in America it should be three strikes and they are out. If people are before the judge three or four times it is not acting as much of a deterrent. We fought to get the law changed so that it would not be seen as a road traffic-type offence."
He said if offenders were not properly dealt with by the courts then that could undermine community confidence in the ability of the police to deal with the problem.
A new poster and leaflet campaign has been launched to remind people of the potential consequences of getting involved in car crime.
Police will distribute the leaflets to members of the public whilst on duty and the youth diversion officer will distribute them to schools in the area. They will also be available in local police stations.
PSNI area commander for West Belfast, Chief Inspector Michael White, said: "The auto crime team has been instrumental in the significant reduction in car crime in the West Belfast area, which is down by 84% in the last 10 years, and much of this is due to the great partnership work with local groups and agencies including FBTCC.
"By working together, we can address the issues which matter most to the local community."
The reduction includes 56% less creeper burglaries, 16.5% less thefts from vehicles and 9% less vehicle thefts in the area in the past six months, compared to the same time last year.
"Police in West Belfast are committed to tackling the issue of car crime effectively to apprehend those involved in this type of activity and to bring them before the courts," the senior officer added.
"We are happy to continue our work alongside FBTCC and hope that the positive relationship continues to bring about the results that we all want - to reduce car crime in the area and make the streets of West Belfast a safer place to live."