Youth Auto Theft: A Survey of a General Population of Canadian Youth

Article excerpt

Motor vehicles continue to be increasingly crucial to daily life. Unfortunately, they are also targets of crime. The problem of theft of and from vehicles has drawn worldwide attention (e.g., for Europe, see Richards 1993). Whether measured by official statistics or surveys, auto theft is a frequent offence that is economically costly to society and harmful to both victims and offenders. For instance, police reported 160,100 motor vehicle thefts across Canada in 2005 with a rate of 496 thefts per 100,000 population (Gannon 2006: 15). Each year, more than CAN$1 billion dollars is lost to auto theft (Insurance Bureau of Canada 2004: 1). Victims are distressed and inconvenienced, while unsuspecting buyers of stolen vehicles surfer financial losses. In addition, there were 81 fatalities and 127 injuries per year in Canada, between 1999 and 2001, as a result of motor vehicle theft, and many of these involved the offenders themselves (Insurance Bureau of Canada: 4).

Although auto theft is variously motivated and committed by different groups of offenders, researchers distinguish between auto thieves who are older professionals stealing primarily for profit and younger amateurs stealing largely for recreation (Copes 2003; McCaghy, Giordano, and Henson 1977; Scott and Paxton 1997; Tremblay, Clermont, and Cusson 1994). This paper focuses on youth involvement in auto theft. In fact, auto theft is a common youth crime, and in Canada in 2005 youths were charged for motor vehicle theft at a rate of 127 per 100,000 population (Statistics Canada 2005b) compared to adults with a rate of 27 (Statistics Canada 2005a). Despite its prevalence and impact, youth auto theft has drawn relatively little research attention compared to other property offences or other youth crimes.

The small body of research on youth auto theft has examined the characteristics, experiences, and motivations of auto thieves, as well as explored the potential of deterrence and prevention, and intervention policies (e.g., Dawes 2002; Fleming 1994; 1999; Light, Nee, and Ingham 1993; McMurran and Whitman 1997; Spencer 1992). However, some of this research is now relatively outdated, and it is unclear if the phenomenon of youth auto theft has changed. Furthermore, the findings are largely based on young offenders (i.e., young auto thieves who have been caught), thus skewing our understanding of youth auto theft. Studies often involve an analysis of official statistics or criminal justice agency records, or surveys of small samples of auto thieves. Few studies have examined the issue of auto theft in a general population, and no one has directly compared the responses of a general population of youth who engage in auto theft and those who do not. Spencer's published study involved a relatively small sample of only boys from one British school, and did not compare responses of youth who did and did not engage in auto theft. Fleming's unpublished study aimed only to compare a general population of Canadian youth not old enough to legally operate a vehicle and those who were. (Both studies also included samples of young offenders). Therefore, it remains unknown what characteristics distinguish youth who engage in auto theft from those who do not. Similarly, it is unknown what factors deter or prevent a general population of youth from auto theft. Finally, it is unknown whether youth who engage in auto theft differ from their counterparts who do not in terms of their perceptions of auto theft and auto thieves. The present paper aims to contribute to the literature on youth auto theft by studying a general population of Canadian youth's experiences and perceptions of auto theft with the goal of investigating these issues.

Youth auto theft

Characteristics, experiences, and motivations of young auto thieves

The youth auto theft literature has made progress in describing the characteristics of young auto thieves, although no one has studied a large general population of young auto thieves (Dawes 2002: 200-202; Fleming 1994: 80-83, 97-100; 1999: 72-73; Higgins and Albrecht 1981: 33-37; Kellett and Gross 2006: 44; Kilpatrick 1997: 173; Light et al. …