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State plans to examine scoring tool key to juvenile auto theft epidemic

By Lisa Gartner
By Zachary T. Sampson
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary
Christina Daly during an interview last year. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

State juvenile justice leaders have set a date to re-examine the tool that makes it easy for kids to steal cars with few legal consequences.

For the first time in about a decade, Secretary Christina Daly and national experts will convene on Dec. 11 and 12 in Lake Mary to consider changes to the Detention Risk Assessment Instrument, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Justice said Thursday.

There is no official agenda yet. But department officials said the meeting — originally scheduled for the spring — was delayed to December so that numerous national authorities on juvenile justice could attend.

HOT WHEELS:Read the revealing series on juvenile car theft in Pinellas

The juvenile auto theft epidemic that has plagued Pinellas and claimed the lives of eight county teenagers in two years will be a big topic at the meeting, Daly told the Tampa Bay Times in May.

"I do absolutely think this is going to be a part of the discussion, and an important part of the discussion," Daly said.

Kids in Pinellas were arrested 499 times for grand theft auto in 2015, more than anywhere else in the state and most places nationwide, including Los Angeles and Baltimore.

The problem was the subject of "Hot Wheels," a recent Times series that found that kids crash stolen cars every four days in Pinellas.

Earlier this month, three boys — the youngest 14 — died when the stolen Ford Explorer they were driving at more than 100 mph crashed into a Clearwater man on his way to work.

The police officers, juvenile judges and even the car thieves themselves told the Times that stealing cars was so popular because kids knew they would rarely be punished in a significant way.

WRONG WAY:His sister died stealing cars. Why didn't the No. 1 car thief stop?

That's why the Detention Risk Assessment, or DRAI, matters: Florida law classifies grand theft auto as a property crime, little different than shoplifting $300 worth of merchandise. To be held in secure detention for any amount of time, arrested juveniles must score 12 points on the DRAI. A kid arrested for the first time for grand theft auto alone scores zero points, and his second arrest shortly after may score just nine.

Judges told the Times that their hands were tied by the DRAI. "There's a revolving door in juvenile," said Patrice Moore. "They know that we have a limited amount of control."

Daly said that she understands the concerns of Pinellas and, reading "Hot Wheels," she was surprised by "the lack of fear that the kids have."

"I feel very strongly that the instrument we use is driven by data and what research tells us is the best way to approach the deterrence of (crime)," Daly said. "I really look forward to a conversation."