March 24, 2023 7:00am

Car thieves and burglars set off alarms about youth crime in Memphis

Concerns rising, even though serious delinquent charges lower than in pre-pandemic years

Photo of David Waters
Memphis, TN Correspondent

All but two people who responded to this month's Power Poll Memphis said they were extremely or somewhat concerned about youth crime in the community.

Only 3 three percent of respondents said they had been victims of a violent crime committed by a minor in the past 12 months. But 12 percent said they had been victims of a serious property crime committed by a minor during that time.

The differences in perception and experience reflect the odd ways crime is trending in Memphis and across the country.

The number of minors charged with serious property or violent crimes has gone up in Memphis over the past two years -- mostly due to a more than 100 percent increase in car burglaries and thefts during that time.

Vehicle thefts are up more than 100 percent again this year. More than half of the people arrested for those crimes have been teenagers. Many have been aided by online videos that show step-by-step how to steal a Hyundai or Kia.

Car break-ins are also up this year by almost 50 percent.

“We know a lot of our young people are breaking into cars and stealing cars as, almost a dare, or a trend right now. They’re finding it easy to do,” Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis told City Council members last month.

Memphis leads the nation in the rate of guns stolen from cars, according to a recent study by Anytown for Gun Safety. Four of the top 15 cities are in Tennessee.

Mayor Jim Strickland and others have pointed out that gun thefts from cars have skyrockets since 2014 when state legislators passed a law allowing adults to have guns in their cars without a permit.

Still, despite the boom in car burlaries and thefts, the overall number of minors arrested for serious crimes remain much lower than in pre-pandemic years going back more than a decade.

The number of minors facing serious delinquent charges rose slightly from 534 in 2021 to 544 in 2022. But the numbers are much lower than the 873 juveniles charged in 2011 and the 788 charged in 2019 before the pandemic began.

Nevertheless, local officials have been sounding the alarm about youth crime in recent weeks.

“What’s different is after the pandemic juvenile crime has just skyrocketed and it’s getting worse. It’s almost like a ball rolling down a hill," Strickland told WREG-TV earlier this month.

Davis also is concerned. “I can’t think of a more pressing or urgent topic than the proliferation of juvenile crime in our city,” she told the Daily Memphian. “When we’re discussing juveniles that are perpetrators of violent crime, or more importantly and more concerning, the frequency of juveniles as victims of violent crime.”

State legislators are responding to those concerns. Proposals include trying juveniles as adults and sending them to adult prisons in more circumstances.

A majority of Power Poll respondents strongly or somewhat agree with those efforts.

But nearly 90 percent of respondents also think the community should make a greater investment in alternatives to youth incarceration such as family support services, mental health and substance abuse services, education/job training, and restorative justice programs that provide youth the opportunity to repair harm to victims and communities.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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