A chart depicting the number of minors arrested on auto theft charges in Connecticut during the first six months of each year between 2019 and 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The number of young people arrested on auto theft charges in Connecticut spiked dramatically during the first six months of 2023, according to statistics from the Judicial Branch, which reported more than twice the arrests made over the same period last year. 

Police arrested 604 minors on auto theft-related charges between January and June 30, a judicial report on juvenile court dockets found. Arrests during that period far outpaced the 269 made in the first six months of last year and nearly matched the total 628 young people charged during the entirety of 2022.

The numbers in the report represent arrests of minors, a statistic the Judicial Branch began specifically tracking in 2018. They do not directly reflect the number of cars stolen in Connecticut, nor do they represent the total number of auto theft-related arrests. General arrest statistics were not immediately available Wednesday, but typically, minors account for about one-third of car theft arrests in the state. 

This year’s increase follows two years of steady decline after youth car theft arrests jumped to 888 in 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

Ken Baron, associate director of UConn’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, offered an initial assessment of the numbers included in the report in an email this week. Barone said the increase could be attributable in part to better reporting, a post-pandemic increase in arrest rates for most offenses, and a heightened police focus on car thefts.

“Many communities developed regional auto theft task forces to combat the rise in car thefts,” Barone wrote. “It is possible that this increased focus has contributed to a higher arrest rate.”

So far, this year’s arrests have largely been concentrated in Connecticut’s cities. New Haven experienced the highest number of arrests during the first six months of 2023 with 108, followed by New Britain with 56, Hartford with 52, and Waterbury with 35. 

Though it is too early to tell, Barone said the numbers may signal a shift from recent years when increases in auto thefts were concentrated in communities like Waterbury and Hartford-area suburbs. 

“New Haven was long the epicenter of auto thefts in CT. Over the last decade, the increase moved up the 91 corridor into the Hartford region,” Barone wrote. “I wonder if we are seeing a reverse of that trend.”

New Haven Police Chief Karl Jacobson did not immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday. 

The increase in youth arrests comes one year after the passage of a new law intended to crack down on young offenders. Among other things, the policy gave police greater flexibility to detain young suspects and allowed courts discretion to require GPS tracking devices for repeat offenders. 

In an interview Wednesday, Mike Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at New Haven University, said measuring the success of new policies depended on whether state officials were aiming to reduce the number of auto thefts or decrease recidivism among young people. 

“If the desired effect was that fewer cars are being stolen, I don’t think this solves that particular problem,” Lawlor said. “If it did, you’d see different outcomes in states that have a completely different approach to juveniles. However, if your goal is for the one-out-of-10 kids that get caught, finding a way to make it less likely that they will reoffend, I think you see some encouraging results here.”

In particular, Lawlor pointed to a section of the Judicial Branch report which found a recidivism rate of only 16% among offenders who completed behavioral treatment services required under a suspended prosecution diversionary program for juvenile offenders. The report defined recidivism as a re-arrest of an offender within a year of completing the program. 

Since January, 36% of minor first-time offenders were diverted to community-based programs under a new risk-based case handling model, according to the report.

All told, first-time offenders accounted for nearly 60% of the minors arrested on auto-theft charges between January and the end of June. Another 19% were second-time offenders. 

Criminal justice experts believe viral videos on TikTok and other platforms have recently impacted car theft rates among young people across the country by demonstrating the ease with which certain models of Kias and Hyundais can be stolen due to their lack of engine immobilizers, a common security feature in most other cars. 

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong has been among a coalition of attorneys general seeking to pressure those manufacturers to install the anti-theft devices

Lawlor said the so-called “Kia Challenge” has compounded car theft rates across the nation. 

“It’s very real. It’s happening everywhere and the best way for people to prevent it is to lock their cars and take their keys with them,” Lawlor said. “And if you happen to have one of those easily taken cars, I think Hyundai and Kia dealerships are handing out lock bars you can put on your steering wheel.”