Auto Theft ‘Early Intervention Pilot’ — just more smoke and mirrors.

The Pitch

A recent Star Tribune article about auto theft in Hennepin County highlighted an initiative out of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office (HCAO) called the Youth Auto Theft Early Intervention Pilot. The program purports to decrease auto theft by juveniles through the efforts of county social workers who contact the juvenile and their families after referral by law enforcement.

The article is awash in random statistics that both demonstrate an auto theft issue in Hennepin County that is out of control and suggests merit in the new program which focuses on intercepting likely juvenile auto thieves with social workers, not police enforcement.

Since the program began in June 2023, the HCAO reports that 121 juveniles have been referred to the new program. Later in the article, the HCAO provides a confusing quote stating “only about 5” of “almost 60” juveniles have had new cases submitted since a social worker intervened.

The Facts

Frankly it’s all smoke and mirrors given the extent of the problem in 2023 (8,348 stolen autos in Hennepin County YTD, compared to 4,757 in the rest of the state), and more importantly the direction Hennepin County is headed compared to the remaining 86 counties accross the state.

The following graph shows the number of auto thefts from June through October (time frame of the HCAO new social worker-based program) over the past three years. It shows Hennepin County’s share of the state’s total auto thefts has increased dramatically — from 42% in 2021, 52% in 2022, and 60% in 2023. 

That’s 60% of the entire state’s auto thefts, in a county that represents just 22% of the state’s population. 

More importantly the graph shows that while the remaining 86 counties in Minnesota have experienced a 36% decrease in auto theft since 2021, Hennepin County has experienced a 27% increase in auto thefts since 2021. While there were slightly fewer auto thefts in 2023 as compared to 2022 in Hennepin County, that reduction is offset by the far superior reduction in auto thefts throughout the rest of the state over the same period.

In other words, while the rest of the state is making progress in addressing auto theft, Hennepin County is dramatically underperforming. One might say the underperformance is “in spite of” Hennepin’s social worker-based efforts.

Auto theft in Hennepin County has become a sport in 2023, precisely because of the response by the Criminal Justice System. Auto thieves, especially juveniles, have been given the distinct impression that stealing cars, fleeing police, crashing into innocent drivers, and bailing out on foot is no big deal.

Arrest rates for auto theft are poor across the state (in the 10% range for all offenders), but they dip to incredulously poor rates of less than 1% for juveniles in Hennepin County.  

There is Value in the Basics

Residents and visitors to Hennepin County deserve better. While there may be some small sliver of merit in assigning a social worker to about 60 potential juvenile auto thieves, the effort becomes almost laughable in a county approaching 10,000 stolen cars in 2023. 

In such an overwhelming scenario, criminal justice system leadership must recognize and value the tried-and-true results that spring from aggressive proactive law enforcement combined with swift and sure prosecution of offenders. 

Continued catch and release will result in two certainties. 1) Those released will have learned there are no consequences to their actions and will continue to offend. 2) Those “catching” will see the futility in participating in the process and will focus their efforts where they can be more useful.

It’s a nasty cycle, but one that could be effectively intercepted if leaders became intentional about it.