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Vehicle Thefts Are Up In Connecticut, But Experts Say Juvenile Justice Laws Aren’t To Blame

The corner of East and Belden streets, the location of a recent incident where a civilian chased a juvenile in a stolen car resulting in a crash and the death of a bystander.
Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
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Connecticut Public
The corner of East and Belden streets, the location of a recent incident where a civilian chased a juvenile in a stolen car resulting in a crash and the death of a bystander.

A deadly crash in New Britain last month involving a stolen car has ignited a debate about Connecticut’s juvenile justice system, but experts say reforms aimed at keeping more teens out of the adult prison system aren’t to blame for a rise in auto thefts.

Their proof: Car thefts are up across the country, including in states that haven’t implemented the same reforms. Also, while the data shows that overall car thefts were up 41% from 2019 to 2020, it is hard to blame juveniles disproportionately for the uptick versus those over age 18 because so few are arrested.

That hasn’t stopped a surge of Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials from holding up the case in New Britain as the prime example of why Connecticut needs tougher penalties for juvenile offenders. There, a teenager with a record of multiple past arrests was allegedly behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle that hit and killed 53-year-old runner Henryk Gudelski.

For almost half of the 910 teens charged in 2020, it was their first auto theft arrest, data from the judicial branch shows. For one out of every six children arrested, it was at least their fifth offense.

At a press conference last week, House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora called for a special session to fix what he and others see as flaws in the state’s system, saying juveniles who commit crimes are too often released back into the community, putting public safety at risk.

“The reality is that these individuals who are committing crimes are demonstrating that our system is broken,” Candelora said.

But research from Central Connecticut State University shows the rash of car thefts isn’t correlated with juvenile justice reforms passed in the state. Those reforms include limiting which offenses juveniles can be charged as adults, closing the state’s prison for juveniles, and limiting which children can be referred to the court system. For example, children who regularly skip school can no longer be referred.

Ken Barone, project manager with the school’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, said thefts have ticked up across the country since about 2013 — around the time keyless ignition technology became more widespread.

Research by Barone and his colleagues also points to another factor that drove crime trends last year: the pandemic. Property crime such as motor vehicle theft historically rises alongside economic instability, Barone said. In Connecticut, auto thefts began to rise around April 2020, just as the pandemic took hold, shuttering schools and large parts of the economy, he said.

Similar trends in vehicle thefts emerged in red states and blue states alike last year, and car thefts were also up by a significant percentage in Europe, Barone said.

“There's really no correlation between an increase in juvenile crime or auto thefts and reforms being made to the juvenile justice system,” Barone said. “But there is a direct correlation between an increase in juvenile crime and an increase, particularly in auto thefts, as it correlates with the pandemic.”

The one-year spike in stolen cars also looks more exaggerated in Connecticut because auto thefts were unusually low in the Nutmeg State in 2019. They fell to their lowest level in three decades, dropping from a high of more than 26,000 motor vehicle thefts back in 1991 to around 6,000 in 2019.

State data shows motor vehicle thefts generally trended downward throughout the 1990s and 2000s, leveling off at between around 6,000 to 7,000 thefts per year around 2010.

“I think it's reasonable to be concerned … but I think what is less reasonable is pointing the finger at the juvenile justice system and saying that's why the increase is happening,” Barone said.

State Republicans said last week they aim to rein in repeat juvenile offenders with a series of legislative or regulatory tweaks, such as ensuring judges have access to a juvenile’s full criminal history when they appear in court after an arrest.

In an interview with Connecticut Public, state Rep. Craig Fishbein, ranking Republican on the legislature’s judiciary committee, acknowledged the rise in auto thefts may be tied to the pandemic, but he added that lawmakers can’t ignore incidents like the death last month of Gudelski.

“Kids are not dumb,” Fishbein said. “And, you know, when their neighbor down the block steals a car successfully and is seen as a hero around that neighborhood, does that impede more activity, or does it foster more activity?”

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