Republicans gather outside the Capitol in 2021 to talk about car thefts and call for a special session to address juvenile crime. Courtesy Hartford Courant

As lawmakers debate how to respond to an uptick in motor vehicle thefts, preliminary figures discussed Thursday suggest there were fewer cars stolen in 2021 than the previous year.

“We’re not necessarily experiencing a continued, substantial growth in auto thefts from last year,” Ken Barone, the associate director at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Planning at the University of Connecticut, told members of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee. “I think if the COVID-19 pandemic continues to remain under control, it’s likely that motor vehicle thefts will continue to decline through 2022.”

The findings support the argument that car thefts increased in 2020 because of societal disruptions caused by the pandemic. As COVID-19 ravaged across Connecticut and the rest of the U.S., it shut down the courts, closed schools and affected policing practices, leading to increases in car thefts in the state and across the nation.

The numbers discussed Thursday are projections, Barone stressed. Last year’s crime stats won’t be finalized until later this year, but preliminary figures and projections of data not yet collected suggest there was between a 4% and 10% decrease in the number of car thefts in 2021 compared to 2020.

Barone posited that reductions could be due to the state reopening as COVID-19 numbers stay low, cooperative efforts among local police departments and an increased awareness that people should be locking their cars and not leaving key fobs inside, making them easy targets for theft.

Regardless of what the final figures end up showing, Barone is confident that the data will show a decrease from the bump in car thefts in 2020.

Barone made a similar presentation to the committee last year. One of the key findings in his research involved where those thefts were taking place. Motor vehicle thefts have declined in Connecticut’s major cities, more likely to be represented by Democrats, and have increased in surrounding suburban communities, which Republicans are more likely to represent.

Projections for 2021 suggest that more than half of towns with municipal police departments likely saw a decrease in auto thefts compared to 2020.

Car thefts spiked in 1991 and were at an historic low in 2019.

Barone reiterated that there were significantly fewer car thefts in 2021 compared to the peak in 1991, when there were 26,254 such crimes. In 2019, there were only 5,964.

“We’re nowhere near where we were 20 or 30 years ago, with this crime,” said Barone.

Barone said police rarely make an arrest after a car is stolen. The statewide clearance rate in these cases in 2020 was only 7.3%, Barone said, “meaning 93% of all auto thefts went unsolved in 2020.”

These are particularly challenging crimes to solve, Barone said, and the low clearance rate isn’t much different from the historic rate for these crimes, which hovers around 12%.

“The historically low clearance rate is an indication that increased penalties for these offenses is likely going to have little to no impact on the overall offense rate,” Barone said. “We need to be able to make arrests of motorists and solve these crimes in order for penalties to potentially act as a deterrent for these crimes.”

Also of note: For the past 15 years, children — meaning juveniles, the group publicly blamed for the car theft increase last year — have made up around a third of those arrested for car thefts, he said.

“Now, again, it’s still a fairly small number, you’re talking about arrest data for less than 10% of all offenses. So make of that which you will,” said Barone.

A two-time victim of car theft, Rep. Pat Callahan, R-New Fairfield, stressed the importance of getting to the root causes of why people steal cars.

“Even though schools were closed, people should still know right from wrong. And just the fact that a car is left open doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to open it and see if they can start it and steal everything in it,” Callahan said. “It’s not key fobs that are causing cars to be stolen. It’s people that are out there doing it, and why are they doing it?”

Shutting down boys and girls clubs, after-school programs, and schools — entire communities, really — has profoundly affected life for kids and adults during the pandemic, said Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London.

“You saying everybody knows right from wrong, that’s right,” Nolan told Callahan, “but there’s a lot of people in our community are going through things that some of us don’t understand.”

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.