This is the area in New Britain where police say a pedestrian was struck and killed by a juvenile in a stolen car. Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
This is the area in New Britain where police say a pedestrian was struck and killed by a juvenile in a stolen car.

Omar McDew may never be able to count all the car thefts his football team has prevented.

But this coach says giving children who live in one of the nation’s poorest communities something to do is the best crime-prevention strategy out there.

“Those are 30-something kids that are not out in the streets stealing cars. We start in June, we don’t wait for football season, and part of the reason is to keep those kids busy and tire them out so all they want to do is go home and go to sleep.”

But when the pandemic hit, the structured activities shut down — many for more than a year.

“Latin club. African American club. The Polish Club. Ski Club. Robotics. Auto body shops. Young entrepreneurs …” McDew recalls.

McDew is also in charge of this city’s Juvenile Review Board, which is where children are sent when they get caught shoplifting or committing other low-level crimes.

“A lot of my kids during COVID went right down the tubes because they missed that face-to-face interaction,” McDew said. “My kids do not respond to Zoom. My kids I work with, they need a face-to-face, they need to see people and feel people care about them.”

During those long months when kids were stuck at home with nothing to do, fears also grew across the state about crime.

A string of high-profile car thefts made the headlines. Some were violent, and some involved teenagers.

The issue came to the forefront in June when a stolen SUV struck and killed a jogger in New Britain. Police say a 17-year-old with a record of past offenses was behind the wheel, and a 15-year-old was in the passenger seat. They were being chased by another driver.

That crash reignited a debate over how Connecticut handles juvenile crime.

Across the country, vehicle thefts were up during the pandemic. Recently released FBI data show that between 2019 and 2020 the rate of thefts increased nationally by 11% compared to 41% in Connecticut.

In New Britain, the number of cars stolen in some months tripled compared with the same time before the pandemic.

Statewide, car thefts increased by nearly 50% in some months. This uptick followed decades of steady declines.

Critics say there’s something behind Connecticut’s recent spike.

New Britain Police Chief Christopher Chute and others believe the state gives young offenders too many chances, and they blame children for the uptick.

“We’re definitely under the confident belief, it’s because of the juveniles. Whatever they’re trying to do in the juvenile justice system, it is not working,” he said.

But Chute can’t say for sure because so few thieves are caught and arrested. The number of children arrested in New Britain and charged with stealing cars is actually down.

Fear in the suburbs

Pandemic thefts aren’t just a city issue — it’s also driving fear in the suburbs.

“We have gotten to the point where we do not feel safe in our homes, our yards, our cars,” Democratic state Rep. Jill Barry said during a summer forum in Glastonbury after a violent car theft took place her well-off suburban town. “We fear for our children, and the thought of them riding their bikes, playing outside and waiting at the bus stop.”

The suspects in the Glastonbury theft got away, but Barry and others believe the offenders were juveniles.

Car thefts in Glastonbury tripled early in the pandemic and arrests have remained in the single digits.

The state’s top prosecutor, Rich Colangelo Jr., was at that same forum. He’s been a fierce critic of the laws state legislators have adopted that dictate how children who break the law are treated by the criminal justice system.

“What we’re doing now is not working, and that’s really why we’re here,” he told the crowd.

While state data show there was an uptick in car thefts after the pandemic began, only 3% of all car thefts so far this year were carjackings or associated with other violent offenses. Most of the remaining cars were stolen when the owner wasn’t around.

Despite the fear, a review of state car theft data suggests violent thefts are not on the rise.

Delays in the juvenile justice system

Those who work with teenagers suspect what really drove the uptick was the sudden slowdown of the juvenile justice system during the pandemic.

Many kids were left with nothing to do, said state Rep. Robyn Porter.

“Idle time is the devil’s playground,” she said. “Give these kids something productive to do, invest in them so that we can yield some interest. We can’t keep throwing them away.”

The Democrat from New Haven joined others outside the state Capitol over the summer to beg the state to not overreact to the headlines by locking up more children.

“People. Not prisons. People. Not prisons,” the crowd chanted.

The juvenile justice system plays an important part in enrolling teens in extracurriculars and summer jobs and connecting them with therapy and other supports.

But a review by Connecticut Public found that during the height of the pandemic, it took months for some juvenile offenders to be steered into beneficial programs.

For many, those referrals often come only after the case is closed. And for months, courts here were behind. That’s because the number of juvenile courts hearing cases dropped from 15 to two. The courts slowed down so much that hundreds more kids were waiting more than six months for their cases to be resolved.

Many of those teens were just waiting at home, including Crystal Sanchez’s 15-year-old son. The single mom in Bridgeport can’t stay home with her three kids during the pandemic because she has to work so that she can pay her bills.

“The neighborhoods we live in, there’s nothing for the kids to do out there. And if there is, it cost so much money. It’s difficult,” Sanchez said. “Parents got to work two jobs, and then to pay for the extracurriculars, it’s just a lot. My son, he likes cooking and beat making. They don’t have anything like that. And even the sports, the school that’s closest to us, they still don’t even have a basketball team, or football, baseball, none of that.”

Her son has been charged with stealing multiple cars during the pandemic. But Sanchez and others with children who’ve gotten into trouble for stealing cars told Connecticut Public that they’ve struggled to get their kids help.

Because the courts backed up, cases for children like Sanchez’s were taking especially long to be resolved.

And so Sanchez’s son wasn’t getting enrolled into programs.

“I did notice that he was going down the wrong path. The thing is with the court, they wait until the child does it multiple times, or commits a very serious crime before they actually give us help,” she said. “I’ve been asking for a program from the very first time. I guess you have to wait until you get into probation to get into the programs.”

Her son eventually got into more serious trouble and is now incarcerated in a prison in the adult system. He’s still waiting for his case in juvenile court to be resolved.

“I believe if he would have got a program, a bracelet, or some type of soft punishment, I believe it would have helped him a lot,” she said.

With the court-referral pipeline stalled, many providers who work with these teens say they struggled to help them during the pandemic.

Albert Ray Dancy and his staff at the Pen or Pencil mentoring program took it upon themselves to get Bridgeport kids involved. The schools also stopped sending cases their way for months because the city’s point person to make that connection got sick.

”We weren’t getting the referrals. I finally had to go out into the community and knock on doors to get kids on board,” Dancy said.

But enrollment was still way down.

“If there has been an increase in car thefts, it is primarily due to the amount of time that the juveniles have had on their hands,” he said.

Not being able to conduct face-to-face programs also had an impact.

Hector Glynn, chief operating officer of The Village for Families & Children, runs some of the largest juvenile justice programs in the state. The Judicial Branch didn’t allow him and many providers to resume in-person treatment until 16 months into the pandemic.

He thinks that was too long to go remote.

“Most mental health services are built on relationships. And so if you can’t build those relationships, especially if you’re dealing with children who are either angry or exhibiting those types of behaviors, it’s very difficult to do that through Zoom,” he said. “There was a huge disruption to the service delivery system. We were advocating for more in-person earlier.”

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on children, he said.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” he said, “because parents are finding their kids are either exhibiting these externalizing behaviors — aggression, fighting — or they’re becoming suicidal.”

It will take some time for the state to really understand the impact the pandemic had on juvenile crime, said Gary Roberge, who’s in charge of court operations for the Judicial Branch.

“I think the trickle of kids coming into those programs is just a result of the environment that we were in,” he said. “We’ve got to wait until 12 months out, 24 months out and see what the outcomes of those cases are with respect to recidivism, successful program completions, things like that. So it’s going to take us a little while to catch up.”

Car thefts subside after courts and structured activities reopen

While the two sides hash out whether the pandemic or a too-lenient juvenile justice system is to blame for the increase in car thefts, an analysis of theft data by Connecticut Public found that car thefts have begun to slow down.

During the first three months of the pandemic, thefts jumped 36% compared with the same three months before the pandemic. Then between October and November, thefts shot up by 48% compared with the same months before the pandemic. During the first three months of this year, thefts rose by 7% — and then between April and June, they decreased by 10% compared with before the pandemic. Data from the summer months can’t be analyzed yet because several police departments are behind in reporting their data to the state’s Crime Analysis Unit.

Back in New Britain, Omar McDew’s football team and other extracurriculars have resumed and school has returned full time, though with a bit of a rocky start.

And car thefts are subsiding in this city, too.