Courtesy of the Berlin Town website

BERLIN, CT — It’s a scene that Berlin town officials said they were hoping to avoid when they passed a resolution last week asking Gov. Ned Lamont and legislators to address escalating car thefts.

Last Wednesday several West Haven officers were struck by a city police cruiser driven by a juvenile who was attempting to flee from arrest after crashing a stolen car.

Two officers were injured and taken to an area hospital. A third escaped with his life by maneuvering his way out of the path of the charging vehicle.
Although car thefts and car break-ins have plagued the state, and the country, for years, big city police officials contend that the recent dramatic increase is being driven by the coronavirus pandemic.

Kids aren’t in school, which provides structure and time away from troubled family life, New Haven Police Chief Otoniel Reyes told Lamont a few weeks ago.

“Juvenile crime is spiking,” Reyes said during a discussion with Lamont on the impact the pandemic has had on law enforcement. “Every week we’re dealing with robberies and stolen vehicles and we know it’s a product of the pandemic.”

The number of crimes is also striking fear in suburban towns such as Berlin where car thefts and break-ins have increased markedly since the beginning of 2020.

From Nov. 30, 2019 to Nov. 30, 2020 there have been 255 car break-ins and 64 car thefts in Berlin. During the same period the previous year there were 52 car break-ins and 16 car thefts.

In more than 90% of the cases, the vehicles were unlocked – a fact that is driving the crimes, said Berlin Deputy Police Chief Christopher Ciuci.

“People in Berlin feel safe so they don’t lock their cars or garages,” Ciuci said. “We want people to feel safe, that’s not a bad thing, but we don’t want them to be complacent.”

After years of issuing warnings about unlocked vehicles, Berlin police are forging ahead with a public awareness campaign encouraging residents to form neighborhood watches, lock their cars and garages and report suspicious activity.

At the same time, the Berlin Town Council approved a resolution last Tuesday asking for a meeting with Lamont and legislators to discuss what can be done to deal with the car thefts. Other surrounding towns are expected to pass similar resolutions, Berlin Mayor Mark Kaczynski said.

But rather than pointing to the pandemic, town officials are blaming recent legislative reforms as the cause of increased crime.

“Since 2012, state lawmakers have passed significant legislation, which has emboldened criminal behavior, and left residents vulnerable and afraid,” the resolution states.

The document goes on to say that the town acknowledges “that motor vehicle break-ins and vehicle theft are crimes of opportunity, we are equally cognizant of the fact that current policing standards prevent officers from, among other things, engaging in pursuit.”

The town wants a meeting with Lamont and legislators to “partner and identify solutions” that will protect residents and youth, the resolution said.

The resolution which lists several recent juvenile justice reforms as the culprit, isn’t sitting well with Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee who has worked for years to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system.

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“The General Assembly isn’t just putting laws out there,” Winfield said. “The Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee has worked for many years talking about what the right reforms are with everybody that touches the lives of children from people in the court system to the state Department of Children and Families to prosecutors.”

The work has been based on data that shows that juveniles who are put into the adult criminal system increases their likelihood of spending many more years in the system, Winfield said. “These policies are not fly-by-night, they are well thought out, brought before the legislature and debated,” Winfield said.

Referrals to juvenile court for auto-theft related offenses have increased nearly 18% since 2019, according to figures provided by the Judicial Branch. From Jan. 1 to Dec. 15, 2019, there were 695 referrals to juvenile court involving auto-theft charges. During the same period in 2020, the number of referrals rose to 820. The figures do not represent the number of individual juveniles who have been referred to the court, Judicial Branch officials said.

After several fatal crashes, JJPOC and the legislature tried to address the issue of teens in stolen cars in 2019 by allowing eligible offenders to have their prosecution suspended for six months while they attend treatment.

Not every teen charged with car theft is eligible to enter the program, said Gary Roberge, executive director of the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch. Only those juveniles who have been charged with six offenses related to larceny, car theft and criminal trover, known as joy riding, and who have risk factors for reoffending that would make them good candidates are approved to participate, said Tasha Hunt, deputy director of Juvenile Probation.

Those who are granted entrance must attend individual cognitive behavioral therapy sessions designed to address anti-social and impulsive behavior, Hunt said.

“We know kids steal cars for different reasons,” she said. “Some of what we found out is that kids can be very impulsive.”

Some do it for the thrill and some have anger, marijuana use, anti-social behavioral issues or family problems that haven’t been addressed, she said.

“This isn’t just for the driver, it’s for a kid who was a passenger in a stolen car as well,” Grant said. “Kids are negatively influenced because they don’t have the skills to make better choices.”

It’s too early to tell if the program will generate a significant reduction in the number of teens coming back into the system, Roberge and Hunt said. Of the 62 teens who have completed the program since late 2019, 56 have not been rearrested. There are 54 teens currently in the program with another three in the process of entering, Hunt said.

The goal is to keep as many kids out of the system as possible in order to give them a better chance at staying out, Winfield said. “Nobody goes to jail forever for stealing a car,” Winfield said. “But what you do when you incarcerate someone for car theft is you make it harder for them to get a job, pay for their groceries and support their family.”