November 4, 2023

A carjacking crisis and a dysfunctional juvenile justice system


PERF members,

Washington, D.C. is in the midst of a carjacking crisis. One week ago, a 13-year-old was shot and killed by an off-duty federal security officer when the boy and another juvenile attempted to carjack the officer. The boy had nine prior carjacking and robbery charges over a five-week period. Two days earlier, a teenage girl was killed when two cars she and a group of other teenagers had carjacked crashed into each other. A few weeks earlier, a congressman was carjacked at gunpoint. And days before that, four teenagers were killed after crashing a carjacked car in nearly Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Like other types of violent crimes, carjackings increased in 2020 and 2021. But unlike other violent crimes, such as homicides and aggravated assaults, we don’t seem to have turned a corner with carjackings in 2022 and 2023. I’m going to cover what we know about carjacking trends over the past four years, then discuss how this problem is playing out here in Washington.

In February 2021 I spoke with police leaders from four cities – Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans – about carjacking trends in their cities during the first year of the pandemic. They shared several takeaways:

  • Many carjacking suspects were young. With many schools closed for in-person education, school-aged youths with free time – some as young as 12-15 – were committing a large portion of the increase in carjackings.
  • A small number of suspects were responsible for many of the carjackings. With many courts closed because of the pandemic and authorities reluctant to hold juveniles pending trial, suspects remained on the street and were committing multiple crimes.
  • These were crimes of opportunity. Offenders weren’t targeting certain cars. They were noticing potential victims, such as delivery drivers or people warming up their cars, and acting on those opportunities.
  • Some suspects were needlessly assaulting the victims. Even when victims complied with suspects’ demands, some suspects assaulted the victims.
  • To address these trends, police departments were putting more resources into investigations. Some agencies were also using intervention strategies with known offenders.

We later asked PERF members for information about their crime statistics in the first six months of 2020 and the first six months of 2021. The 157 responding agencies reported a 16 percent increase in carjackings from January-June 2020 to January-June 2021. That increase was entirely driven by agencies with at least 500 officers, as smaller agencies reported a decrease in carjackings.

Earlier this year, the Council on Criminal Justice published a study of crime trends through the end of 2022. Using data from seven large cities, they found a 24 percent increase in the carjacking rate from 2020 to 2022.

While we don’t have current nationwide data, I suspect that trend has continued in 2023. It has been a particular problem here in Washington, D.C., and those shocking cases from the last few weeks are not isolated incidents. The city has seen more than 830 carjackings in 2023, more than double the number that had occurred at this point in 2022 and more than six times the number that had occurred at this point in 2019. Neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland has had more than 450 carjackings this year. Nearly three-quarters of the carjackings in Washington, D.C. this year involved a gun.

The police department and city government are trying to respond but are having trouble keeping up with the spike in cases. In early 2021, the Metropolitan Police Department established a task force to address carjackings and auto thefts. And in July, the D.C. Council passed an emergency crime act that makes it easier to keep suspects accused of violent crimes, including juveniles, in custody before their trials. Just this week, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the city will provide free tracking tags to residents in the neighborhoods where the most carjackings are occurring.

But there are demands that more be done. This week the Washington Post published an editorial arguing police should establish a more permissive pursuit policy to chase more carjacking suspects, but I believe officers pursuing teenagers with little or no driving experience through the streets of Washington will often end poorly. And city leaders have argued about what needs to be done to address cases involving repeat juvenile offenders.

Other cities are reevaluating their policies as well. This week Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott spoke about the shooting death of a 16-year-old who had been involved in the attempted carjacking of an off-duty Baltimore police officer earlier this year. “If something was done the first time, the first time someone was arrested for something like this, that young man will be alive today,” Scott said. “That’s the reality.”

These cases in Washington, D.C. and Maryland involve juveniles committing violent crimes, often without consequences. As a result, we’re seeing innocent people and the carjackers themselves, many of whom are kids, injured and killed. Police, prosecutors, judges, and juvenile justice officials need to rethink a juvenile justice system that is currently dysfunctional. As Mayor Bowser said earlier this week, “Guns, carjackings, 13-year-olds: recipe for tragedy.”