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Carjackings, Vehicle Thefts Are Up; Causes, Remedies Not Clear

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Carjackings and car thefts are up significantly during and since the pandemic, prompting fear and calls for action in many cities.

Motor vehicle thefts increased by 29% in 2023 compared with the previous year, while carjackings slightly decreased by 5% in nearly 40 American cities, says the think tank Council on Criminal Justice, Between 2019 and 2023, both car thefts and carjackings increased dramatically, by 105% and 93%, respectively,''

The cities with the highest year-over-year increases in motor vehicle theft between 2022 and 2023 were Rochester, N,Y., Baltimore; Buffalo, Charlotte, and Cincinnati. The cities with the highest rates per 100,000 residents in 2023 were the District of Columbia; Baltimore; Memphis, Chicago; and Denver.

Many have blamed the surge in auto theft on a social media trend among teenagers that exposes vulnerabilities in certain kinds of cars, especially Kia and Hyundai models. The varying reliability of motor vehicle theft data at different law enforcement levels and the scarcity of national carjacking data make it hard to determine what — or who — is responsible for the spikes, reports Stateline.

There is limited FBI data on carjackings and motor vehicle thefts because law enforcement agencies differ in how they collect and submit data.

“We certainly don't want people flying blind making decisions with respect to public safety,” said criminologist Alex Piquero of the University of Miami and the former director of the U,S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Anecdotal evidence on social media can heavily shape public perceptions of safety and crime, said Ernesto Lopez of the Council on Criminal Justice.

Carjacking data, especially at the national level, is hard to come by. Despite the greater availability of motor vehicle theft data, its reliability varies across different law enforcement levels, with some local departments failing to submit their data to federal agencies and others not collecting the information at all.

“We need more local law enforcement agencies to produce that data — not just internally for their own community to report out to the community, but also for policy action,” Piquero said.

Misconceptions such as an overemphasis on the role juveniles play in carjackings and auto thefts can lead to misguided policies that may not enhance public safety and, in some cases, may exacerbate the situation, says Josh Weber of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a think tank focused on breaking the cycle of incarceration.

“[These misconceptions] tend to lead to more reactionary and punitive policies rather than policies that are necessarily grounded in research and data,” he said. “Research has consistently shown that detaining more kids, incarcerating more kids, pushing more kids into the juvenile justice system is a bad public safety strategy,, It actually increases the likelihood that kids will reoffend.”


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