May 4, 2024

The Youth and System That Contribute to Chicago’s Rise in Carjackings

By Tegan Amato and Aliyyah Zaidi

police car photo

The Juvenile Justice Complex in Cook County. (Photo by Aliyyah Zaidi)

When Hannah Finnegan returned from a concert in October 2022, she was shocked to find her car missing. Glass was left under the streetlight where her Kia was parked outside her friend’s Chicago home.

“When I first saw it, I started to panic and I was expecting to never find it again, I thought I was going to be completely screwed,” Finnegan said.Finnegan and her cousin were able to locate the car a few blocks away, but it had been completely ransacked.

“Seeing all my papers, all my trinkets gone through made me feel violated,” Finnegan said. “I didn’t keep anything from the car because it felt wrong.”

Finnegan’s experience with car theft is one of many in Chicago. In March 2024 alone, there were almost 100 reported carjackings in Chicago, according to data published publicly by the Chicago Police Department

During the COVID-19 pandemic, carjackings increased across major U.S. cities by 59% from 2019 to 2022, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. This upward trend continued in 2023, with 29% more reported vehicle thefts than in 2022.

But who is behind carjackings in Chicago? Surprisingly, many of the crimes are committed by juvenile offenders. According to CBS News, the percentage of carjackings committed by youth doubled between 2016 and 2021, from 18% to 41%. 

Elizabeth Clarke, founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a non-profit based in Evanston dedicated to improving the juvenile justice system in Illinois, said those in contact with the justice system under the age of 18 tend to be those from impoverished, overpoliced communities.

“Whenever you look at maps of arrests or maps of people who are locked up, for example, and in Chicago, it’s just a handful of ZIP codes,” Clarke said. “They’re generally ZIP codes where poverty is high, schools are bad, transportation is poor.”

Clarke added, “They are children who have so much against them, that they don’t necessarily see a clear path to the future.” 

Former Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot claimed in 2022 that a rise in carjackings was due to remote learning caused by the pandemic. A Vox article published in January of last year blamed social media for making Kias, like the car Finnegan drove, and Hyundais among popular targets. 

Despite the conflicting accounts by the media for why carjackings happen, experts interviewed emphasized similar points of why youth steal cars.

Sierra Warfe, a former intake worker at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, said many juveniles involved in crime are searching for a sense of community. 

“A lot of it comes from lack of resources, lack of family structure, lack of community environment,” Warfe said. “A lot of it stems from the community that they’ve created for themselves.”

A lack of community happens for a multitude of reasons. Warfe uses the example of systemic issues making it hard for children to get their needs met at home as a reason why children look for community through crime.

“It is very uncommon that youths are solo perpetrators that are alone committing these crimes,” Warfe said. “They’re usually out with groups of friends. It’s the community aspect. That’s what they’re doing because that’s what their friends are doing.”

Dr. Arthur Lurigio, professor of Psychology, Criminology and Criminal Justice at Loyola University Chicago, agreed with Warfe that children are looking for community outside of their homes. 

“Kids gravitate toward one another, and it’s based on common interest and similarities and situations,” Lurigio said. 

The lack of connection between children and their communities and schools also plays a role in their likelihood of turning to crime. Lurigio cites systemic issues such as social and economic deprivation, institutional racism, segregation in Chicago, intergenerational poverty, and the lack of investment in the school systems as all being reasons why children look to crime for self-esteem and purpose. 

Timeline: A Brief History of Chicago’s Juvenile Court System

“[Chicago] has invested in crime because we didn’t invest in the root causes,” Lurigio said. “True safety will come from the transformation of a neighborhood.”

When asked if social media plays a role in carjackings, Clarke said, “I think that’s such a ridiculously simplistic answer.”

“The underlying issues are so complex, and that all boils down to our society not having provided children with the kinds of resources that they needed to thrive and grow and have a positive life.” 

Clarke approved of how Chicago is currently working to transform their neighborhoods. 

“The schools are doing a good job providing food – breakfasts and lunches – for children with children… Illinois has been investing heavily to make sure that children can all get on medical insurance,” Clarke said. “So I think we’re on the right path. And I think that’s why the numbers are going down.”

According to the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, the number of admissions to state juvenile detention centers dropped almost 10% from December 2021 to December 2023. However, for those still in detention centers, Chicago has been making strides to create new systems that help to address the roots of crime, such as mental health access and substance abuse.

“We have come to recognize the importance of services and not just housing people,” Lurigio states. “The focus is especially on providing juvenile healthcare services, especially mental health and addiction services, and keeping them in school.”

Still, Chicagoans expect more work to be done by the city to help keep kids on the right path. 

“When I was younger, I feel like every time we went downtown, there was always free things to do,” Finnegan said. “Like now you go to Wicker Fest and they charge you just to get in.”

Warfe agreed that changes need to be made to the way youth and youth offenders are brought up. “It shouldn’t be a reactive system, it should be a proactive system.”


Your thoughts

What do you think the city of Chicago can do to help youth and bring down carjacking rates? Leave us a comment below letting us know.

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