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Vehicle Thefts Still Up In Connecticut After Pandemic Bump

State Rep. Toni Walker speaks outside the state Capitol on Aug. 6, 2021. Walker and other Democrats say Connecticut's juvenile justice system is on the right path, despite criticism from some lawmakers who believe it's too lenient.
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
CT Public
State Rep. Toni Walker speaks outside the state Capitol on Aug. 6, 2021. Walker and other Democrats say Connecticut's juvenile justice system is on the right path, despite criticism from some lawmakers who believe it's too lenient.

In the wake of a rash of high-profile car thefts – and state Republicans casting blame on a failed juvenile justice system – Democrats gathered outside the state Capitol with a plea to the media on how to cover the issue.

“Please do it with the data. Do not give me anecdotal. That is not fair to our state,” said Rep. Toni Walker, a New Haven Democrat and co-chair of the state’s juvenile justice oversight committee. “Our kids need you to put forth the truth about this whole story.”

New data obtained by CT Public’s Accountability Project offers some insight into whether the significant uptick in car thefts seen between 2019 and 2020 was a one-year setback following decades of steady declines or the beginning of an upward trend.

That data shows that during the first six months of this year, car thefts are likely on pace to increase again.

Local police departments reported to the state’s Crime Analysis unit that for the first half of the year, car thefts in 2021 were above the record-low levels of 2019, but below last year’s spike. However, because police departments are often months behind in reporting, additional thefts will continue to roll in and increase the statewide numbers. When Connecticut Public added in the entire six-month car theft count for Hartford and New Haven, two of the state’s largest cities, the statewide figures mirrored last year’s numbers at this time.

Rep. Craig Fishbein, the House minority leader of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, hopes the data leads everyone to accept that the state has a problem that needs fixing.

“Compared year to year with an upward trend, that is significant.”

He also said the anecdotes can’t be ignored. Two of the high-profile cases involve a 17-year old allegedly killing a jogger in New Britain, and another in West Hartford, where a 16-year old stole a car with a toddler inside.

While the data shows that overall car thefts were likely up, it is hard to blame juveniles disproportionately for the uptick versus those over age 18 because so few are arrested. The number of children arrested for stealing cars during the first half of the year is back down to 2019 levels, Judicial Branch data shows.

Several of the community providers who work with children intertwined in the juvenile justice system say the pandemic is the culprit as it festers into month 19.

They describe a logjam of referrals being made to them for those just entering the juvenile justice system as the courts resume and in-person services such as therapy for those referred to private providers wasn’t allowed to resume until July. School for many was also partially virtual.

“They just, you had a lot of time: idle time,” said Albert Ray Dancy, the leader of Pen or Pencil, a program that tries to divert Bridgeport children from prison. “They were left pretty much to their own devices.”
Many Democrats agree, including Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven.

“Idle time is the devil's playground. Give these kids something productive to do. Invest in them so that we can yield some interest.”

Rep. Craig Fishbein discusses juvenile crime during a press conference at the state capitol on Aug. 10, 2021.
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
CT Public
Rep. Craig Fishbein discusses juvenile crime during a news conference at the state Capitol on Aug. 10, 2021.

But Republicans insist that this uptick is the result of what they believe are too-lenient laws on how to respond to children who steal cars.

“When I was growing up, if you get chickenpox, you’re home from school for two weeks. You don’t go out and steal cars, you play video games, you read some books, you know, that kind of stuff,” said Fishbein.

The two factions also disagree on the solution to reversing the uptick. Democrats want the state to double down on programming for these children, while Republicans say it’s time for tougher penalties.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas was an investigative reporter with Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project from July 2021 until August 2022.
Walter Smith Randolph is Connecticut Public’s Investigative Editor. In 2021, Walter launched The Accountability Project, CT Public’s investigative reporting initiative. Since then, the team’s reporting has led to policy changes across the state. Additionally, The Accountability Project’s work has been honored with a National Edward R. Murrow award from RTDNA, two regional Murrow awards, a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, three regional EMMY nominations and a dozen CT SPJ awards.
Jim Haddadin is an editor for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer at NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

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