MADISON, Wisconsin – With auto thefts on the rise, leaders and community members are looking for solutions.
According to the Madison Police Department, reports of stolen cars have increased steadily each year, from 448 in 2017 to 749 in 2020. That number is 619 so far from 2021 to September.
Statistics from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office also reflect this trend, with 56 auto thefts in his jurisdiction already in 2021, surpassing the whole of 2020 when that number was 54. There have been 14 reports of thefts from cars in September 2021 alone, the highest in a single month for at least the past five years.
The surrounding towns have also been impacted. For example, the Verona police recently announced that they are cracking down on car thefts after a series of crimes. So far this year, 10 cars have been reported stolen, exceeding 9 in 2020, according to Verona police. In 2018, the number of auto thefts was 17, more than in 2016 and 2017.
In recent years, police have said children and adolescents are behind many stolen cars.
“I’m afraid these kids will run into the wrong house and someone will shoot them and they have a legal right to do that,” said Dr. Rev. Marcus Allen of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Madison.
This fear has prompted Allen to seek solutions to auto theft in recent years, but he said it was difficult to identify exactly who the juvenile offenders are due to confidentiality.
“Because of that, it just sent me on a loop,” he said.
Allen was sent for a loop again in July.
“I stand on both sides of the spectrum”
“I stand on both sides of the spectrum: an advocate for children and a victim of auto theft,” Allen said. “The day my car was stolen, I was meeting with my team at my church to determine how we can be involved in preventing this theft. “
He said it happened in late July when his children took out the trash and left the garage door open. This opened the way for intruders around 3 a.m., who stole his and his wife’s car from their home in Madison near Verona.
“I felt violated,” Allen said. “They came to my house. My children are there, my wife.
His car was found around five hours after it was stolen due to an engine locking device and was returned in good condition, but his wife’s car was destroyed in an accident.
“They do it for money, they do it for housing and they do it just for fun,” Allen said.
“Some would call it merry-go-rounds,” said Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes. “It’s no joy if your car has been stolen.”
As in Allen’s case, Barnes said auto theft is often a crime of opportunity, so locking your home, garage, and car doors is essential.
“We want to make it clear that it is not your fault that your car is stolen, but it is important to give a good education,” he said.
Community members have taken charge of providing this education to their neighbors as well. Kim Richman, who coordinates the Buckeye Grove Good Neighbor Project, knows how easy it is to forget to lock in.
“It’s that time you forget, boom,” Richman said.
He recommends paying attention to your neighbors, as well as what he calls the 9 p.m. routine – which can really be done at any time – to make sure all doors are locked.
“My main message is to get into a routine,” Richman said. “We are creatures of habit.”
Barnes said three main factors play into such crimes.
“They are suitable targets, motivated offenders and a lack of guardianship. We are doing our best to increase the patrols in the areas where we need to be, trying to get into the neighborhoods, but we cannot be there all the time, ”he said, adding that cars are stolen from all parts of the city. “Next, motivation, we want to decrease the motivation of people to commit crimes by making quality arrests. “
From arrest to charges
“I think law enforcement is doing all they can to try to dismiss cases,” Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said. “As they are referred, we try them, we pursue them. “
Ozanne said it appears that crimes in which people walk into a house or garage and take the keys to steal a car are becoming more common than people leaving cars running.
He highlighted data showing that the majority of auto theft referrals result in charges for both adults and minors, at a slightly higher rate for minors in recent years.
Ozanne noted, however, that the juvenile detention system is not designed to incarcerate children and adolescents.
“You have a situation where minors are seen, they can be charged, and there is a decision to hand them over to parental custody or some lesser form of supervision,” Ozanne said. “It puts a minor back in the community and sometimes you’ve seen a small number of minors creating a lot of these incidents.”
Unlike 2016 and 2017, car theft referrals for minors exceeded adult referrals in 2018 and 2019, peaking at 321 in 2019. Ozanne said that at that time there was a cluster of ‘about 50 minors whom they considered to be repeat offenders.
“That may change in part,” Ozanne said. “Some minors we’ve seen in recent years may age in the adult system.”
In 2020, referrals of minors are again lower than referrals of adults. So far, 2021 continues this trend, with overall benchmarks dropping
“That doesn’t mean auto thefts are down,” Ozanne said. “This frankly means that I think the police have no case or no one to refer for charges.”
He said it can be difficult to gather evidence to charge someone, especially if a stolen car is abandoned.
He added that it is important not to abandon minors who may be on the wrong track.
Beyond the Criminal Justice System
“It’s not that we’re not going to work with people who come before the criminal justice system,” said Ozanne. “But what we really need to look at is can we connect with these 9, 10 and 11 year olds and put them on a positive path. Give them real opportunities. Get them involved in supportive programs so they don’t follow in the footsteps of a kid they think might be the cool kid in the neighborhood right now.
He also said that in some cases, the prosecutor’s office needed a better ability to communicate with those supervising minors to ensure court orders are carried out. He added that restorative justice is another option.
Almost all concerned have agreed that there will be a need for cooperation, with solutions that go beyond the criminal justice system, such as jobs and services for minors and families.
“A lot of people just want to lock them up, but then they become institutionalized and agree to be locked up and continue to commit crimes,” Allen said. “I certainly want to see them undergo a form of punishment, but also a form of rehabilitation. Not just putting them in a jail cell for a day or a month, but how do you make sure that kid has better options? “
Starting Sunday, Allen teams up with the UW sports department and heads to the juvenile detention center with soccer players to talk with children.
Allen knows this is an uphill battle, but he will do what he can to turn the tide.
“I think it’s a big hill that we have to climb, but I think it’s doable,” he said.
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