Dude got out of prison, that's why. King County prosecutors say the release from prison of a number of prolific auto thieves over the past two years is at least partly to blame for skyrocketing auto-theft rates in the Seattle area last year.

Dude got out of prison, that’s why.

King County prosecutors say the release from prison of a number of prolific auto thieves over the past two years is at least partly to blame for skyrocketing auto-theft rates in the Seattle area last year.

According to data released Tuesday by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, auto theft rose 18.8 percent in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area in 2010 compared with 2009. Overall, auto thefts in Washington climbed nearly 10 percent over that same period.

Nearly 30,000 cars were stolen in Washington last year, or an average of 80 cars per day, said Karl Newman, president of NW Insurance, a nonprofit public-education organization funded by insurance companies in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

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According to the insurance bureau, Spokane ranked fourth-highest in the nation for auto-theft rates, up from 18th in 2009, with 2,763 stolen vehicles in 2010.

The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area jumped from 37th to 13th, with 16,192 vehicles reported stolen in 2010. The region leads the state with more than 55 percent of all auto thefts.

Fresno, Calif., topped the insurance bureau’s national list of metropolitan areas with the most stolen cars with 7,559 in 2010. Eight of the top 10 hot spots for stolen cars were in California, according to the bureau.

Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors believe the increase last year could be attributed to the release of a number of thieves who had been sent to prison in recent years.

“We think they were getting out,” said Donohoe.

About five years ago, King County prosecutors began cracking down on serial car thieves by seeking prison sentences as long as five years.

In one case, the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said in 2006 that he planned to send a message to other car thieves by pursuing an exceptional sentence of 10 years for Liam Moynihan, who used a screwdriver and a hammer to steal 136 cars in six months.

Prosecutors believe many car thieves sentenced during that crackdown may now be getting out of prison and returning to their old ways.

Donohoe said auto thefts appear to be dropping again in 2011. He said figures show a 28.8 percent decrease in the number of auto thefts in King County in the first two months of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010.

In Seattle, auto theft was down by 18 percent in the first five months of 2011 compared to the same period in 2010, according to Seattle Police Department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

The decline could be linked to another round of arrests and convictions for the serious auto thieves, according to Donohoe.

Newman, of the insurance council, said the increase in the state’s auto-theft rate was particularly noteworthy because auto theft went down nearly 7 percent nationwide from 2009 to 2010.

Access to several ports in the Puget Sound region and an international border with Canada could make Washington cars easier to move and more attractive to thieves, he said.

The overall national decline in auto-theft rates is due in part to law-enforcement efforts and the increasingly effective anti-theft devices built into new cars, Newman said.

“Auto manufacturers have made it increasingly difficult to steal newer cars,” he said “They can track and recover stolen vehicles very quickly now.”

Those deterrents on new cars can make older cars more attractive to thieves, he said. “There’re a ton of them and they don’t stand out, so it’s easier to blend in,” he said.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com