A tiring trend: How leaders are trying to slow down rising car thefts

MADISON, Wis. – With car thefts on the rise, leaders and community members alike are searching for solutions.

According to the Madison Police Department, reports of stolen automobiles have increased steadily each year, going from 448 in 2017 to 749 in 2020. That number is 619 so far in 2021 through September.

Statistics from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office reflect that trend as well, with 56 car thefts in its jurisdiction already in 2021, outpacing all of 2020 when that number was 54. There were 14 reports of car thefts in September of 2021 alone, the highest in a single month in at least the past five years.

Surrounding cities have been impacted, too. For instance, Verona police recently announced they’re cracking down on car thefts after a string of crimes. So far this year, 10 cars have been reported stolen, topping 9 in all of 2020, according to Verona police. In 2018, the number of car thefts was 17, higher than both 2016 and 2017.

In recent years, police have said children and teens have been behind many of the stolen autos.

“It is my fear that these kids are going to run into the wrong house and someone will shoot them dead and they have the legal right to do so,” said Dr. Rev. Marcus Allen of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Madison.

That fear has driven Allen to search for solutions to car theft in recent years, but he said it’s hard to identify just who the juvenile offenders are because of confidentiality.

“Because of that, it was just sending me around in loops and loops,” he said.

Allen was sent for a loop again in July.

‘I stand on two sides of the spectrum’

“I stand on two sides of the spectrum: an advocate for kids and a victim of car theft,” Allen said. “On the day that my car was stolen I was meeting with my team at my church to figure out how we can be involved in the prevention of it.”

He said it happened in late July when his kids took the trash out and left the garage door open. That opened the way for intruders at about 3 a.m., who stole both his and his wife’s car from their Madison home near Verona.

“I felt violated,” Allen said. “They came in my home. My children are there, my wife.”

His car was found about five hours after being stolen because of an engine locking feature and was returned in good shape, but his wife’s car was totaled in an accident.

“They’re doing it for money, they’re doing it for housing to sleep in and they’re doing it just for the thrill of it,” Allen said.

“Some would call it joy rides,” Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes said. “It’s not a joy if you have your car stolen.”

Locking it up

Like in Allen’s case, Barnes said car thefts are often crimes of opportunity, so locking house, garage and car doors is key.

“We want to be clear it’s not your fault if your car is stolen, but it’s important to give good education,” he said.

Community members have taken it into their hands to provide that 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 up.

“It’s that one time you forget, boom,” Richman said.

He recommends looking out for your neighbors, along with what he calls the 9 p.m. routine — which can really be done any time – of making sure all doors are locked.

“My main message is to get into a routine,” Richman said. “We’re creatures of habit.”

Barnes said three main factors play into such crimes.

“It’s suitable targets, motivated offenders and lack of guardianship. We’re trying our best to increase patrols in areas we need to be, trying to get in neighborhoods, but we can’t be there all the time,” he said, adding that autos are being stolen in all parts of the city. “Then motivation, we want to decrease the motivation of people to commit crimes by making good and quality arrests.”

From arrest to charges

“I think law enforcement is doing all they can to try and refer cases,” said Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. “As they’re referred we are trying them, we are prosecuting them.”

Ozanne said it appears crimes in which people enter a home or garage and take keys to steal a car are becoming more common than people taking cars left running.

He pointed to data showing that the majority of car theft referrals result in charges filed for both adults and juveniles, at a slightly higher rate for juveniles in recent years.

Dan Co

Source: Dane County District Attorney’s Office

Ozanne noted, however, that the juvenile detention system is not designed to incarcerate children and teens.

“You do have a situation where juveniles are seen, they can be charged, and there is a decision to release them to parental custody or some lesser form of supervision,” Ozanne said. “That puts a juvenile back into the community and at times you have seen small numbers of juveniles creating a large number of these incidents.”

Unlike in 2016 and 2017, car theft referrals for juveniles topped adult referrals in 2018 and 2019, peaking at 321 in 2019. Ozanne said around that time there was a group of about 50 juveniles they deemed repeat offenders.

“Some of that may be changing,” Ozanne said. “Some juveniles we were seeing in the last few years may be aging into the adult system.”

In 2020, juvenile referrals dropped below adult referrals once more. So far 2021 continues that trend, with referrals down overall

“That doesn’t mean auto thefts are down,” Ozanne said. “It means frankly that I think law enforcement does not have a case or a person to refer for charging.”

He said it can be hard to compile evidence to charge someone, especially if a stolen car is left abandoned.

He added it’s important not to abandon the juveniles who might go down the wrong road.

Beyond the criminal justice system

“It’s not that we’re not going to work with the individuals that come to the criminal justice system,” Ozanne said. “But what we really need to look at is can we connect to those kids who are 9, 10 and 11 and put them on a positive path. Get them real opportunities. Get them into supportive programs so they don’t follow into the footsteps of a kid they feel might be the cool kid on the block at the moment.”

He also said in some cases the DA’s office needs a better ability to communicate with those supervising juveniles to make sure court orders are being enforced. He added that restorative justice is another option.

Nearly all players in this agreed it will take cooperation, with solutions beyond the criminal justice system, like jobs and services for both juveniles and families.

“Many people want to just lock them up, but then they become institutionalized and become fine with being locked up and continue to commit crimes,” Allen said. “Definitely I want to see them have some form of punishment, but also some form of rehabilitation. Not just put them in a jail cell for a day or month, but how are you making sure this child has better options?”

Starting Sunday, Allen is partnering with UW Athletic Department, heading to the Juvenile Detention Center with football players to talk with kids.

Allen knows it’s an upward battle, but he’ll do what he can to shift the trend into reverse.

“I think it’s a large hill we have to climb, but I think it’s doable,” he said.