Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie photo
Rep. Toni Walker and Rep. Robyn Porter at the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee meeting Thursday (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The suburbs of central Connecticut are now the “hot spot” for car thefts, while authorities in nearly every major city are seeing fewer vehicles stolen, according to a preliminary report released Thursday to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.

Committee members including Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, called for an examination of car thefts and juvenile car theft arrests a few weeks ago after a lengthy public hearing on HB 7332, which would allow courts to automatically transfer juveniles charged with committing a car theft to adult court based on their criminal history.

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The issue has pitted juvenile justice advocates against police, who say their towns are being whacked with an increasing wave of car thefts that they believe have escalated since the state raised the age for youth to be classified as “juveniles” to 17 in 2012.

Since then, suburbs have been increasingly plagued with car thefts, especially unlocked vehicles with key fobs left inside the car. There have been several highly publicized deaths connected to teens in stolen cars during the same period, including that of 15-year-old Jayson Negron, who was shot by Bridgeport officer in 2017 as he tried to flee. A Hartford woman also died after being run over by a Hartford teen in a stolen car.

The findings of the report were released less than 36 hours after a 17-year-old from Hartford died after the stolen Mercedes he was in crashed in Durham early Wednesday. The car was chased minutes before by officers in Madison where the vehicle was stolen, state police said. It is unclear who was driving the car.

Car theft decreased in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, and New Haven by more than 38 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the report drafted by Ken Barone, project manager at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University.

Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie photo
Ken Barone project manager at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University explains his findings (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie photo)

At the same time, car thefts are up by close to 21 percent in the state’s suburbs with populations up to 25,000. The highest concentration of car thefts has moved from the New Haven area to the Interstate 91 and 84 corridors in the central Connecticut suburbs, Barone said.

“We’ve literally seen the problem traveling north over the past seven or eight years,” Barone said.

The only “outlier” was the city of Waterbury, which saw a 91 percent increase in car thefts from 2008 to 2017. Waterbury had the fewest number of car thefts out of any large city in Connecticut 10 years ago, Barone said.

“This is one of the few times you don’t want to come in last to first in this particular race,’ said Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, who attended the meeting at Walker’s invitation.

Walker suggested that Waterbury’s car theft rate was connected to cuts in after school and evening programming designed to keep kids engaged.

Overall car thefts in the state of Connecticut are down from more than 12,000 in the 1990s to 7,310 in 2017, Barone said. But the state has seen an uptick since 2014, when the number bottomed out at 6,100.

Barone cautioned that more data would be needed before any conclusions could be drawn. Car theft in general has about a 14-percent solvability rate, so the age of who committed the crimes is hard to nail down.

He contends that the age range of those charged with car theft hasn’t fluctuated much since 2008, when 46 percent of those arrested were under 19, compared to 49 percent in 2017.

About 55 percent of the people arrested for car theft in Glastonbury are under the age of 18, said Glastonbury Police Chief Marshall Porter, who is on the committee. “We have a small group of juveniles committing 90 percent of the crimes.”

Criminal activity connected to car thefts is also escalating, he said. “They’ve gone from joy riding to using the cars to commit more serious crimes,” Porter said.

But advocates of juvenile justice reform contend that more data needs to be gathered before any conclusions can be drawn.

“I think fear never makes good legislation,” Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said. “I know the context of people being run over by cars, but when the public hears those things they say you better do something.”

Barone wants to cull information on where the cars are ending up after the vehicles are stolen. But several committee members wanted to collect data on what was happening in a kid’s life when he opts to steal the vehicle.

“Locking them up is not the answer,” said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven. “Let’s find out why they are choosing to do bad things.”