Ken Barone
Ken Barone, associate director of the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, gives a presentation to Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee during a meeting before the pandemic. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Car thefts and juvenile arrests for car thefts declined in 2021, according to researchers and the Judicial Branch.

Preliminary figures compiled by Kenneth Barone, the associate director of the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, indicate a 4% to 6% decrease in the number of reported auto thefts in 2021 compared to 2020.

The Judicial Branch, which has been tracking of the number of juveniles charged with auto theft-related offenses, also saw a decrease in juvenile arrests for car theft in 2021 at 684, down from 889 in 2020.

The numbers show that the increase in auto thefts in 2020 in Connecticut correlated with the onset of the pandemic, Barone told the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee during their meeting Thursday.

As restrictions related to the pandemic began to ease, the number of car thefts went down, particularly in the last half of 2021, Barone said.

“As the 2020 data indicated, the increase in motor vehicle thefts was directly related to the impacts of the pandemic,” Barone said. “The increase began in April and May 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Motor vehicle thefts were up across the country in 2020.”

The numbers are significant as Republicans have been pushing an agenda to get more juveniles who have been charged with auto theft to face stiffer sanctions, including sending their cases to adult court. The package of bills would require juveniles to wear electronic monitoring if they were arrested for a second car theft offense while they had a case pending and to send more kids directly to adult court for certain offenses including repeated car thefts.

Barone’s figures don’t tell the whole story, said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, who is supporting HB 5418, which would make a car theft a Class B felony on the third offense.

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“There is no way to know how many of these kids are committing those crimes,” Fishbein said of Barone’s data. “I don’t want any kid stealing a car. The fact that he’s saying car thefts are down 4% to 6% is helpful, but if the point is that he’s saying less juveniles are stealing cars, the present way we are dealing with this isn’t working in any way, shape, or form.”

At the same time Republicans are pushing for anti-crime bills, JJPOC has been steadfast in instituting juvenile justice reforms to keep more kids out of the system and free from incarceration.

Rep. Pat Callahan, R-New Fairfield, questioned how the introduction of key fobs and the pandemic are leading to more car thefts. “It’s not the key fobs that are causing cars to be stolen,” said Callahan, who wanted to know how the pandemic was connected to car thefts. “The question is why are people doing it?”

The pandemic has been hard on everyone including kids, said Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London. “There are a lot of people in the community who are going through things,” Nolan said.

The tally of reported car thefts will not be finalized for several months, Barone said. But based on his projections, 57 of 94 municipalities with a police department will show a decrease in the number of car thefts in 2021. Glastonbury had a 263% increase in auto thefts in 2020 – 80 compared to 22 the year before, Barone said. In 2021, Glastonbury had 39 auto thefts – a decrease of 51%, the data showed.

Central Connecticut was the hardest hit in 2020 with Hartford County seeing a 53% increase in motor vehicle thefts, Barone said, adding that in 2021, Hartford County experienced a 14% decrease in the number of car thefts.

During the same period, the state saw a 23% decrease in juvenile arrests for car theft, according to the Judicial Branch. The 2021 number of juveniles arrested for car thefts is down 8% compared to 2019 when there were 745 juvenile arrests, according to the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division, which tracks the arrests.

Of the 684 juvenile arrests for car theft in 2021, 40% were first-time offenders, according to the Judicial Branch data. Another 40% were arrested three or more times for car theft in 2021, the branch said.

Since it will take months to know for sure whether car thefts are down, the best plan is to wait until there is a definitive answer, said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee that is debating the Republican car theft bills.

“Clearly we want to know what the outcome really is,” Winfield said. “And clearly with the pandemic closing programs where young people get their resources had an impact. It makes sense that now that things are opening up, that car thefts are going down. But we need to wait until we’re sure of the data before we make any policy changes. “