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Galvanized by the hit-and-run death of a jogger by suspected teenage car thieves, Republican legislators on Wednesday called for a special session to enact tougher penalties and curb the ongoing surge in auto thefts and related crimes.
“To say that this issue has reached a boiling point would be a gross understatement,” House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora said. “As residents have begun their own policing to protect their property and lives, and now with a loss of a life in New Britain, it should be clearer than ever to Democrats that the legislature must tackle this issue head-on as quickly as possible.”
New Britain police said two teens bolted from a stolen Audi after striking a man who was jogging Tuesday night. The man was rushed to an area hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Police have not identified the victim.
On Wednesday, police said they arrested the 17-year-old local boy who was driving the stolen vehicle after finding him hiding in a closet at his home. The teen has been arrested 13 times over the last 3 and a half years, police said, including on charges of assault with a knife, robbery, reckless driving, larceny and possession of narcotics.
“Somebody’s life could’ve been saved,” Mayor Erin Stewart tweeted, “but this was a complete failure of the Connecticut juvenile justice system, if you can say there even is one.”
Many proposals, few laws
Sen. Rob Sampson said the fatality was no surprise, the result of legislators’ inaction.
The Wolcott Republican said that although several bills meant to keep young criminals off the streets were introduced in the legislature this year, none became law in the Democratic dominated General Assembly.
“The government and the state of Connecticut are sending a terrible message to the citizens of this state — that crime is OK,” Sampson said. “The criminals are learning this and they are becoming more brazen.”
Republican lawmakers cited proposed legislation that would eliminate the statutory six-hour limit that a juvenile can be held without a court order; broadening criteria for a court to deem a juvenile a risk to public safety on a second offense instead of a third; amending policy to allow police officers to pursue car theft suspects in certain circumstances; and requiring that a child charged with car theft for a second time wear a GPS monitoring device.
Despite the many proposals, Republicans said only one small change was made — increasing penalties for adults who coerce juveniles into committing crimes, including stealing cars.
Democrats, however, cited a new law requiring the Judicial Branch to study ways to decrease time between a child’s arrest and court appearance, as well as ways to reduce juvenile recidivism. They also pointed to crime statistics and a recent data analysis that show the problem is nowhere near as drastic as GOP lawmakers are making it out to be.
A drop, then a spike
Some advocates of tougher penalties blame changes to the state’s juvenile justice system, but a recently released data analysis of car thefts across the state found little evidence that reforms over the past decade contributed to the spike in stolen vehicles.
While law enforcement leaders argue that young suspects cycle through the system repeatedly with few consequences, the analysis from the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University found the recent increase in car thefts is not related to laws meant to keep teens out of jail.
The rate of car thefts in Connecticut did increase in 2020, the preliminary data show, but it is still about 3% lower than in 2018 and closely reflects a nationwide trend during the COVID-19 pandemic, IMRP project manager Ken Barone said.
Instead, it’s the analysis’ finding of a dramatic 17% drop in the rate of car thefts in 2019 — to the lowest level ever recorded since tracking began in 1985 — that should raise the most questions and that experts think could hold the key for how best to combat teen car thefts in the future, Barone said.
The total number of car thefts reported in Connecticut rose to about 6,200 in 2020, though the data have not been finalized, up from a historic low of 5,964 in 2019, Barone’s team found. The number of cars stolen annually in the state dropped precipitously since peaking in 1991, when 26,254 vehicles were taken, but began to rise again around 2013 with the emergence of keyless cars that have proven much easier to steal, Barone said.
Just before that increase began, in 2010 and 2012, the state legislature passed “Raise the Age” laws that added 16- and 17-year-old teens arrested to the juvenile court system instead of adult court. That in turn led to criticisms that the change helped fuel the ensuing increase in car thefts because teens felt there were few, if any, consequences.
But the data show that the increase did not correlate with reform laws and that the share of teens arrested for motor vehicle theft has steadily dropped over the past 30 years, Barone said.
Search for solutions
Dozens of Connecticut communities saw a rise in car thefts last year. West Hartford police reported thefts rose from 83 in 2019 to 120 last year, and car burglaries climbed from 337 to 427. In Windsor, vehicle thefts increased from 60 to 96. Rocky Hill reported auto thefts rising from 24 to 41.
But Rep. Robyn Porter, a New Haven Democrat, said the issue has been ongoing and only drew attention when thefts started hitting the suburbs in significant numbers.
“It doesn’t become a problem that we need to do something about ... until it does trickle into our suburban neighbors’ communities, and that’s really disturbing to me,” Porter said this spring.
Barone’s data analysis supports what police say they knew anecdotally: Thefts have shifted up the I-91 corridor to central Connecticut and out of the urban centers like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport into wealthier suburban communities.
Rep. Jason Doucette, a Democrat who represents Manchester and Glastonbury, said he was “committed to finding some solutions that can have an impact.” Doucette said he favored the proposal for GPS monitoring of a juvenile car theft suspect after a second offense.
He also referred to a bill passed in 2019 that was supposed to make it easier for courts to hold a child as a risk to public safety by adding motor vehicle theft as a criteria. The law (bit.ly/3jr2XtT) also included new diversionary programs.
“However,” Doucette said, “I think it is clear that these are not working as intended, perhaps because of the pandemic — particularly the lack of detainers being issued and the apparent limited use/success of those diversionary programs.”
Lawrence Cook, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, said Republicans sought to change a juvenile justice bill that the legislature passed a few years ago by seeking to require a judge to immediately hold a juvenile car theft suspect. Democrats instead passed a law giving judges options based on individual cases, including the juvenile’s arrest history and the likelihood that the suspect would show up for the next hearing.
“Personally,” Cook said, “I don’t see what the issue of immediate detention has to do with this. It’s a red herring by Republicans. Either way, the suspect has to be charged, appear in court, be tried and be found guilty or not guilty – whether they are temporarily detained or not.”
Cook also cited statistics from 2019 that showed about 36% of those arrested for motor vehicle theft were under age 18.
The last time individuals under the age of 18 represented more than half of those arrested for motor vehicle thefts was in 1995, Cook said, and for the past 5 years, suspects under 18 have represented about 35% of those arrested.
But Republican leaders said the current situation calls for action.
“Given today’s news, that a 17-year-old with a rap sheet of serious crimes has been arrested in the New Britain case, it should be clearer than ever,” Rebimbas, former ranking member of the judiciary committee, said. “Nibbling around the edges with studies, forums and platitudes isn’t enough—people who live in the many communities affected by these crimes deserve meaningful action. Victims deserve solutions.”
Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at email@example.com.
Courant staff writer Christopher Keating contributed to this report.