Crime scene tape (Fer Gregory via Shutterstock) Credit: Fer Gregory / Shutterstock
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Okay, how’s this for a line of attack: Crime, especially juvenile crime, is on the rise in Connecticut, and Democrats are doing nothing about it. Scary! Throw in some culture war stuff about Democrats wanting to defund the police and suddenly those suburban voters will forget the pandemic and the insurrection and all the bad stuff they associate Republicans with. Good, huh?

Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t as cynical as this. Republicans have always been all about supporting the police and cracking down on crime, and they’ve been looking for ways to hit Democrats on the police reforms of the past few years. For them, I imagine an actual, honest-to-God crime wave is something akin to a vindication.

But Republicans are definitely doing everything they can to press what they see as a real advantage against Democrats – including stretching the truth when it suits them.

Prospective gubernatorial challengers to Gov. Ned Lamont, former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides and 2018 runner-up Bob Stefanowski, have penned opinion pieces in the last month about crime, blaming the rise in violence and car thefts on Democrats ending qualified immunity for police, working to lower the prison population in the state, and juvenile justice reforms.

The problem is that none of these Democratic policies have much, if anything, to do with rising crime. Shootings have been on the rise all across the country, even in red states, for the past 18 months, a trend that predates last summer’s police reforms. Car thefts, which seem to be the subject of a lot of Republican anger and frustration, actually hit a low in 2019 that makes recent increases seem a lot steeper. Experts say that the recent rise in thefts has nothing to do with juvenile justice reforms.

And while it’s absolutely true that the prison population has been declining steadily for the past decade, that has more to do with fewer admissions instead of carelessly releasing felons onto the street. That’s according to Mike Lawlor, who oversaw those efforts for the Malloy administration. 

Increases in violent crime and car thefts seem to track more closely with the big, obvious cause, the global pandemic that’s upended everyone’s lives for the past 17 months. Before 2020, crime in Connecticut was at or near all-time lows. Even the pandemic can’t explain everything, however.

The trouble is that crime has complicated causes that can be very hard to track and there are rarely any simple answers. Republicans love the simple answers, though, and generally want a larger number of less accountable cops on the street and harsher sentencing as a deterrent. Do any of these things actually work? Who knows, but they sure make people feel better.

If you were around 30 years ago, this whole narrative probably sounds very familiar. Crime had been rising in the United States for decades, and it peaked in the early to mid-1990s. Republicans found that hammering Democrats on crime worked pretty well for them then, and they drag that same playbook out whenever the public worries about crime.

But since then, crime has declined at an astonishing rate. Here’s the strangest part: nobody really knows why. Conservatives point to harsh sentencing guidelines and more police on the streets, but researchers have found only a vague correlation between those policies and lower crime.

That’s the really frustrating thing about crime: there’s not a good understanding of why it goes up and why it goes down. We do know, however, that mass incarceration and a lack of police accountability can have disastrous results, especially for communities of color.

Democrats and advocates for juvenile justice reform are pushing back on Republican attacks and calls for tougher penalties for youth who commit crimes, saying that the root causes need to be addressed instead. Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, noted correctly that many people only started caring about crime when cars started getting stolen in the suburbs.

That isn’t going to stop Republicans from running with what they see as a potentially winning issue. Expect more lurid stories about car theft victims in suburban towns in the weeks and months to come, like one about a car being stolen in West Hartford with a two-year-old inside that Bob Stefanowski recently tweeted about. Nobody was hurt in that incident, but that’s clearly beside the point.

Meanwhile, statistics show that car thefts by youth are actually down for the first six months of 2021 as compared with the same period last year.

How about that?

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.