Thursday, November 15, 2018
Public safety

Juvenile justice reform seen as help for teen car theft problem

ST. PETERSBURG — One of Tampa Bay’s largest religious organizations has decided to make reforming the juvenile justice system one of its top priorities for next year.

Hundreds of members of Faith & Action for Strength Together (FAST) voted overwhelmingly Monday night to make "youth concerns," including crime, their greatest worry in the community.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Despite some progress, juvenile auto theft remains the scourge Pinellas can’t escape

The organization, made up of several local congregations, has advocated for juvenile diversion programs before. But Pinellas County’s teen car theft epidemic, religious leaders said, has left them more worried now than ever.

"It’s sad to see young people dying when it could have been prevented," said Rev. Clark Hazley of Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. "It’s not so abstract now. It’s real close."

FAST leaders vowed to devote the next six months to pushing for a bill to expand civil citation programs for youthful offenders across the state.

Many kids, Hazley said, could be turned away from crime before they do something as serious as steal a car. Civil citations could keep them out of a system that brands and socializes them as criminals. Instead, he said, they should be given the resources to escape that fate.

The Tampa Bay Times has documented the auto theft crisis in its yearlong "Hot Wheels" series, reporting that in Pinellas County more juveniles are arrested for car theft than anywhere else in Florida. The crime threatens the entire county with near-constant danger — children here routinely crash stolen cars, and eight teenage auto thieves from Pinellas have died in the last two years alone.

TAMPA BAY TIMES SPECIAL REPORT: HOW TEENS ARE DRIVING PINELLAS COUNTY’S CAR THEFT EPIDEMIC

HOT WHEELS: Kids are driving Pinellas County’s car-theft epidemic. It’s a dangerous — sometimes deadly — game.

THE CHASE: Cops, teen car thieves and a dangerous game

WRONG WAY: At 15, Isaiah Battle was the county’s No. 1 car thief. He had every reason to stop.

THREE DEAD: Three boys dead after fiery crash in stolen SUV, Pinellas sheriff says

But members of FAST said that law enforcement and legislators’ response to date — primarily arresting more kids and toughening the law for the worst offenders — cannot be the only solution.

"Because we don’t provide children with enough hope, they feel desperate and alone," said Rev. Jean Cooley, from Good Samaritan Presbyterian Church in Pinellas Park. "Our position (at FAST) is doubling down on prevention."

Cooley said diversion programs and civil citations can help children who get into fights at school or commit petty crimes when they’re young avoid more serious offenses later in life.

The Times used police and court records to examine the lives of some of the county’s top auto thieves and found that many came from broken homes and committed lesser crimes before they ever broke into a car.

Hazley’s church is in a neighborhood home to many of St. Petersburg’s young car thieves.

Some parents work at night, he said, and cannot watch over their children, who look for fun after hours, when little is available for them to do around Midtown. The FAST commitment, he said, shows children that people are dedicated to giving them second chances and a better future.

"It shows them that we’re just not ready to kick them to the curb," Hazley said.

Judi McGinity’s son was a recipient of such a second chance. When he was a teen, she said, he was caught with friends spraying graffiti on a building in St. Petersburg.

The mother said police gave her son the option of entering a diversion program, which allowed him to keep a criminal mischief charge off his record.

Over six weeks, McGinity said, her son was put through behavioral lessons and other work to correct his course. After that, he has avoided trouble.

"He could have went either way," said McGinity, who attends St. John’s Episcopal Church in Largo. "He was 14 at the time, which I think is an age where these kids could go either way."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

Comments
Note in accused killer's car led authorities to Hernando park ranger's body

Note in accused killer's car led authorities to Hernando park ranger's body

Jeffrey Morrison told authorities in June that he'd killed his girlfriend, Mitzi Babb. When they searched his car, they found a message on a piece of cardboard that led them to a river.
Updated: 2 minutes ago
Charges are being filed against the homeless vet and couple that raised $400,000 for him online

Charges are being filed against the homeless vet and couple that raised $400,000 for him online

The heart warming story of a homeless veteran who saved a woman was all a scheme to make money, prosecutors in New Jersey say.
Updated: 17 minutes ago
The Daystarter: The Rays’ Blake Snell takes the Cy Young; Red Tide is stalling the growth of Pinellas tourism; and catch up on all the latest Florida recount news.

The Daystarter: The Rays’ Blake Snell takes the Cy Young; Red Tide is stalling the growth of Pinellas tourism; and catch up on all the latest Florida recount news.

The Daystarter: What’s it like to be called up the NHL; this father had a foreboding sense about his son; check out all the Tampa Bay Times’ podcasts.
Updated: 4 hours ago
Florida woman steals lobster from Red Lobster tank, tells deputies she was 'blacked out drunk'

Florida woman steals lobster from Red Lobster tank, tells deputies she was 'blacked out drunk'

The lobster never saw it coming. And it was never seen again.
Updated: 1 hour ago
State attorney: Tampa cop had consensual sexual contact with woman at traffic stop

State attorney: Tampa cop had consensual sexual contact with woman at traffic stop

Hillsborough County's top prosecutor said new evidence surfaced during investigation showing the woman consented to the contact.
Updated: 5 hours ago
Hillsborough to be a dumping ground for clay from Hardee County phosphate mine

Hillsborough to be a dumping ground for clay from Hardee County phosphate mine

Hillsborough County Commissioners on Wednesday voted 4-2 in favor of a controversial request by Mosaic to dump clay from its Ona Mine into the Four Corners Mine in southeast Hillsborough County.
Updated: 5 hours ago
Slain father: ‘If something happens to me, it’s going to be my son.’

Slain father: ‘If something happens to me, it’s going to be my son.’

Friends mourn the loss of Jim Costello, who said he feared his son. Tarpon Springs police say the son fatally shot his father after a fight over a dog.
Updated: 5 hours ago
Wesley Chapel toddler fell into pool, rushed to hospital

Wesley Chapel toddler fell into pool, rushed to hospital

The incident took place in the 30600 block of Tremont Drive. The boy was reported to in critical condition.
Published: 11/14/18
Doctor facing malpractice suit wins key appellate court ruling

Doctor facing malpractice suit wins key appellate court ruling

Appeals court upholds ruling that expert witness doctor was not qualified to render opinion.
Published: 11/14/18
All-girls school teacher accused of inappropriate relationship with 14-year-old

All-girls school teacher accused of inappropriate relationship with 14-year-old

Science teacher Jason Osborne is accused of engaging in an inaproproiate relationship with a 14-year-old student at Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy in Tampa.
Published: 11/14/18