The numerous incidents of thefts from garages and of vehicles are frustrating, to say the least, for so many involved.

Waunakee Police have investigated three times the number of burglaries this year than in the same time-frame in previous years, and far more stolen automobiles.

Homeowners, who viewed Waunakee’s Southbridge, Savannah and Kilkenny neighborhoods as safe places for their families, must feel let down. A feeling of violation sinks in after discovering someone has entered your living space, and it’s difficult to shake.

Local law enforcement officers are frustrated, too. Recently, after a burglary report, Waunakee Police, aided by Middleton Police and Dane County Sheriff’s Deputies pursued and apprehended the offenders, but the following day, a report of another theft came in, and other suspects were apprehended. The investigations demand a huge amount of department’s resources.

Law enforcement officials estimate upwards of 30 teenagers are committing these crimes throughout Dane County. But they seem to be returning to Waunakee because they’ve been so successful here, and part of the reason is a sense of complacency among our residents.

Waunakee has been rated as one of the safest places to live in Wisconsin, but its location in Dane County where crimes of opportunity are occurring throughout puts the village at the same risk as all the others.

Most disturbing are public safety threats to all. When these young people flee officers, they drive the cars they’ve stolen with no regard for stop signs or speed limits, sometimes into high traffic areas in an effort to evade police.

Also, in a few of the incidents, guns have been stolen from unlocked vehicles. Waunakee Police Lt. Adam Kreitzman said so far, none of the young people apprehended have been armed, but likely, these firearms are sold to others who can commit crimes.

Of course, residents should lock all doors to their homes, all garage doors and their vehicles. Of course, we should not leave valuables in our cars. And we should watch for suspicious behavior and leave our outside lights on.

But this is only one part of the equation. The young people committing these crimes are said to have experienced a great deal of trauma – they are not just bored, thrill-seeking kids.

A Wisconsin State Journal report (“Officials give talk on youth crime”) quotes Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell’s assessment that “many of the juveniles being arrested have dealt with repeated instances of trauma, such as lack of food, unstable housing, and physical and sexual abuse.”

The article cites a post on Madison Police Chief Mike Koval’s blog criticizing the juvenile justice system for its lack of response.

Police have arrested some of these teens multiple times, but without access to group homes or places to rehabilitate them, they are back on the street reoffending.

A coordinated effort is needed among social service agencies and the juvenile justice system to develop a better path out the cycle. More prevention programs to deter criminal activity could help. Research shows that incarcerating young people is less effective than helping with healthy adolescent development, according to the Urban Institute’s “Strategies for Reducing Criminal and Juvenile Justice Involvement.”

Without a way out of their current home situations, these young people will continue to offend and grow into adults, only to end up in prisons. They, too, will have families, and will be unable to offer stable homes for their children, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Dane County has an opportunity and obligation now to examine the juvenile justice system, crime prevention and rehabilitation programs. It should consider creation of more group homes and jail alternatives. These steps are necessary to secure a better future for us all.

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