Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
It's a sobering statistic: On average, a car has been stolen every hour in Minneapolis since the beginning of 2023, the Star Tribune reported this week.
The city's experience is a major part of the explosion of auto thefts in Hennepin County. More than 8,500 cars have been taken countywide since Jan. 1. And of those cases, only 229, or 2.7%, have been solved or otherwise cleared, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).
Most of Hennepin County's thefts occurred in Minneapolis, and most are believed to have been committed by minors. And many of them are repeat offenders.
To reverse the disturbing patterns, more must be done short-term to hold the young people involved accountable with consequences for their actions. And longer-term preventive strategies — like those being pursued by the Hennepin County Attorney's Office — should be used to deter young people from being involved in the first place.
Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara told the Star Tribune that the BCA clearance data doesn't capture the full picture of police work on these crimes. He said that if car thieves are arrested and charged with a related crime, such as tampering with a motor vehicle, these cases are still labeled "open." An MPD spokesperson reiterated that point and told an editorial writer that many of the repeat offenders are not eligible for the county's program.
Police also say a small group of juveniles is responsible for a disproportionate number of the crimes. Cops know who they are — some have been arrested or picked up multiple times. But the system does not always detain them or hold them accountable, O'Hara has said. One more contributor is the ease of stealing certain models of vehicles using information available on social media.
Auto thefts in the state's largest city are up 180% from the same time in 2019 and have already blown by 2022's record-breaking year-end totals, the Star Tribune reported. And Minneapolis and Hennepin County are on track to end the year far below the 2022 national average of roughly 9% case clearance. (On a positive note, carjackings — which are not included in the car theft figures because they're defined as using force to steal a vehicle — are down this year.)
Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, who campaigned as a champion for reform, is taking the approach that the solutions to juvenile crime should not just be about prosecution. Her office is emphasizing getting to the root cause of why minors are involved with crime, including car thefts. That's the purpose of the office's Youth Auto Theft Early Intervention Pilot — a program that was introduced this summer.
Sarah Davis, director of the Hennepin County Attorney's Children and Families Division, told an editorial writer this week that as of mid-November, 121 kids — mostly from ages 14-16, with a few as young as 7 — have been referred into the program by 14 law enforcement agencies. Of those, about half were deemed eligible. And in that group, only about 10% have been involved in another car theft or other crime. Davis said that most families welcome the assistance, and the preliminary data is promising.
In addition, Davis said the county is moving more quickly to process cases with arrests and charges so that young people see immediate consequences for their actions. Historically, such cases have lingered for weeks or months. Now it's a matter of days.
In addition, the system doesn't have enough places to send young people who need to be detained and have access to resources but should not be sent back home or out into the community.
"We have had to send some young people as far as Utah," she said. "The research shows that's not good for the young or their families [for them] to be sent so far away from home."
Along with the efforts of the county and law enforcement, families and communities play a critical role in reducing car thefts and other crimes often committed by youth. Keeping track of young people and imposing boundaries matter. And when parents or other adults feel they can't control bad behaviors, they should reach out to the county and other programs support and intervention.
Prevention is the best solution. When it fails, however, young criminals must be held accountable.