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Charts: 5 things to know about juvenile crime in Connecticut

Most serious offense header
Graphic by Connecticut Public
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When juvenile offenders in Connecticut get into trouble again, it’s most often for low-level offenses. During the two-year period ending in 2020, the most serious charges filed against repeat offenders 63% of the time were misdemeanors, violations or infractions, according to court records. About 37% were felonies.

How did the pandemic change crime and punishment for Connecticut youth?

A pandemic bump in auto thefts and some other crimes is fueling a heated debate about how Connecticut handles juvenile offenders.

Critics say children who break the law get too many chances. But reform advocates say the state should increase services for troubled kids and keep more out of the criminal justice system.

In the series Juveniles, Joyrides & Justice, Connecticut Public’s investigative reporting team explored how the pandemic affected crime and punishment for Connecticut youth.

Reporting by the Accountability Project showed that hundreds of teens waited months longer for their delinquency cases to be resolved, delaying access to important services.

The series also explained how high-risk juvenile offenders are handled today, examined misleading portrayals of youth crime and described potential solutions.

The graphics below illustrate some key findings from the series:

1. Vehicle thefts spiked in Connecticut in 2020. But they’re still near historic lows.

The increase mirrored an uptick nationwide, and experts say it’s likely that disruptions brought on by the pandemic were the prevailing cause — not policies in any one jurisdiction.

Thefts might also be subsiding. The latest crime data reported by police departments in Connecticut for the first half of 2021 suggest the increase has peaked. Thefts during the period from April through June 2021 were lower than during the same time last year and closer to levels over the last decade.

2. Police data doesn’t show that juveniles are to blame for rising auto theft.

That’s because so few car thieves are ever apprehended. In many jurisdictions, motor vehicle theft is among the least commonly solved crimes.

In Connecticut, the clearance rate for auto thefts in recent years was around 10%. It dropped to around 7% in 2020, according to state data.

Of those who are caught, youth are in the minority, although they comprised a growing share of accused car thieves in recent years.

3. Connecticut locks up fewer teens than most other states. That hasn’t produced a spike in repeat offenders.

Reforms enacted over the last decade prevent children from being arrested for skipping too much school or running away from home. The state also stopped sending all 16- and 17-year-olds accused of breaking the law to the adult court system, and it restricted police from dropping off children at detention centers; now they need a judge’s order to do so.

Today, Connecticut incarcerates children at one of the lowest rates in the country. And drastically fewer children are on probation or intertwined in the juvenile justice system — about half as many as in 2011.

At the same time, the recidivism rate for juvenile offenders — a measurement of how many break the law again — hasn’t substantially increased, based on a review of court records.

Most teens who offend again are accused of low-level offenses, such as breach of peace and disorderly conduct.

4. Courts slowed down during the pandemic, and that meant hundreds of youth offenders were waiting for services.

The juvenile justice system connects children with therapy, extracurricular activities, jobs and a range of other supports.

During the height of the pandemic, it took months longer for some teens to be steered into those beneficial programs.

For many, those referrals come only after the case is closed. And for months, courts here were behind. The number of juvenile courts hearing cases dropped temporarily from 15 to two.

The courts slowed down so much that hundreds more kids were waiting more than six months for their cases to be resolved.

5. Auto theft has shifted from big cities to the suburbs. And experts say it’s increasingly a crime of opportunity.

Wealthier communities along the Interstate 91 and Interstate 84 corridors emerged as new hot spots for vehicle theft in recent years, according to work by researcher Lisa Barao.

Police departments in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and other large cities still report some of the highest theft numbers each year. But rates increased faster in some suburban communities with higher median incomes.

Most car thefts are nonviolent. Vehicles are usually taken when the owner isn’t around.

And increasingly, cars are taken with the keys left inside.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates it now happens in the Nutmeg State about 1,000 times a year, placing Connecticut 27th overall nationwide for the number of vehicle thefts with keys.

Eric George of the Insurance Association of Connecticut said keyless ignition technology gives thieves an easy getaway when drivers leave their key fobs inside.

“Your key fob is as important as your driver’s license, is as important as your credit cards, as your Social Security card,” he said. “You should have it on you, or at least in your home.”

Some suburban police departments in Connecticut have posted yard signs throughout town telling people to lock their cars.

But critics call that victim blaming. They say the state should be tougher on youth crime.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said reforms enacted in the last several years have been “poorly implemented,” turning the juvenile justice system into “more of a diversionary program than a rehabilitative program.”

“What are the results in the streets?” Kelly asked during a recent news conference outside the Capitol with other Republican lawmakers. “What we see every day when we wake up and open the newspaper is yet another crime, another victim, another bold and brazen crime occurring. And we can’t let that stand.”

Two other local observers, a representative from the ACLU and a former state lawmaker, told Connecticut Public the discourse around juvenile crime lacks important context and often perpetuates stereotypes about children of color.

“I think it’s no surprise that sensational stories are likely to be the lead stories in the local TV news, and in all forms of media, because they’re very dramatic, and they’re scary to people,” said Mike Lawlor, a former adviser to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

“And so people see this stuff in the news, and they react to it,” he said.

Read the rest of the "Juveniles, Joyrides, & Justice" series:

Do you have a story that needs to be investigated? Submit your news tips here or email us at tips@ctpublic.org