LARGO — Isaiah Battle, who at 15 years old became the most arrested car thief in Pinellas County, was sentenced to 20 months in prison Monday.
At an emotional hearing that in many ways served as an indictment of the juvenile justice system, Isaiah also received four years probation.
"In Pinellas County, youth stealing cars, fleeing from police, and getting in crashes is out of control," said Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Coyler. "This is extremely concerning behavior that puts everyone at risk.
"The only way to ensure the safety of our community," she said, "is for Mr. Battle to be locked up."
Isaiah was facing up to six years in prison after pleading guilty in June to grand theft auto, fleeing and eluding, and driving without a license. He stole an Acura in January, less than a year after his sister died in a stolen car, and five months after his release from a high-risk program for juveniles.
Despite his age, prosecutors charged Isaiah as an adult. They argued that the death of his sister, as well as his experiences with the juvenile system, hadn't been enough of a deterrent.
Isaiah's public defender said he agreed that the system had let Isaiah down. But he asked Judge Frank Quesada to give both Isaiah and the Department of Juvenile Justice another chance by sending Isaiah back to a juvenile judge for his sentencing.
"I know my juvenile history is crazy long," Isaiah, now 16, told the court. "I fell into some bad habits. ... I was doing what everyone else was doing."
The death of his sister, Dominique, "hurt me and my family so bad," he said. "I just didn't know how to cope."
Isaiah said seven months in a jail cell has given him time to think.
"Being in county jail has helped me realize life is short, and I want to turn my life around," he said.
In a rare move that spoke to the urgency of the auto theft problem in Pinellas, State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, appeared to speak on Isaiah's behalf. He told the court that the teenager was "too young to give up on."
"The court has some responsibility. ...What did we not provide for him during these six months that didn't catch his attention?" said Rouson, referring to Isaiah's time in a juvenile program. "And if the system bears responsibility for not reaching him at the point that we had him, I'm asking you to give him another chance."
Isaiah's mother, Yashica Clemmons, said her son stole cars to escape the pain of growing up without a father.
"I had to be the mother and the father and I did the best I could," she said. "So sometimes the lights got cut off, or the water got cut off, or the rent wasn't paid because I had to feed my children."
Isaiah was traumatized after Dominique's death, Clemmons said. She struggled to find free therapy services for him, unable to afford to pay a grief counselor.
"He took it really hard when he lost his sister," she said. "He was not all right. And to this day he might not be all right."
But prosecutors argued that the juvenile justice system had been a revolving door without consequences for Isaiah, whom police arrested eight times for grand theft auto in 2015. Isaiah was also charged with carjacking after he dragged a St. Petersburg woman across the street in her own vehicle.
Isaiah's story, and the limits of the juvenile justice system — which can only hold thieves for a maximum of 21 days, and often releases them within hours — were prominent components of a recent Tampa Bay Times series, "Hot Wheels."
Reporters found that kids in stolen cars crash every four days in Pinellas, killing themselves and injuring innocent drivers. Earlier this month, three boys died when the stolen Ford Explorer they were driving sped over 100 mph and crashed into a man driving to work.
In 2015, more kids were arrested in Pinellas for grand theft auto than any other county in Florida and most cities nationwide, including Los Angeles and Baltimore.
"I will say I feel sorry for Mr. Battle, because I do feel the juvenile system let him down a little bit," said Coyler, the assistant state attorney. She read from a statement written by Isaiah, in which he said he kept stealing cars because he knew he would serve 21 days and then get out.
"Right now I don't know there's anything we can do about it because he's right: You're held for 21 days and then released back to that home environment," Coyler said. "There's no real consequences. Except for now there is. There are now real consequences."
Isaiah will get credit for seven months he has served in county jail, meaning he will serve about a year in state prison. As a "youthful offender," Isaiah can face the full six-year prison term if he commits another crime while on probation. If he steals another car, the judge said, Isaiah could face 10 years for this charge and five additional years for the new charge.
Christian Allen, an official with DJJ, said Isaiah continued to skip school after being released from its program last summer. His grade-point average was below a 1.0, and he did not take advantage of mentoring opportunities.
"We can only do so much to motivate a youth in the community," Allen said.
Quesada said he could not in good consciousness send Isaiah back to the juvenile system. The judge urged him to get his GED while in prison, noting that the boy was at a "high risk to re-offend even now as you stand before me."
"Their recommendation to do it all over again and expect different results leaves a lot to be said."
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.