ST. PETERSBURG — Bob Dillinger remembers coming to Pinellas County as a legal intern in 1975. There were five major poverty zones in St. Petersburg.
Forty years later, Dillinger is the Pinellas-Pasco public defender, but the same poverty zones still exist, he said, giving birth to most of his clients, including children who cycle through the juvenile system without hope. That hopelessness, Dillinger said, is at the center of the county’s deadly juvenile auto theft epidemic.
"We can’t have that," he said. "We have got to fix it."
Dillinger spoke to a standing-room only crowd of more than 100 people at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg. The event, "Reclaiming Our Youth: Is Juvenile Justice a Reality?" was in many ways a rebuke to law enforcement’s effort to solve the car theft crisis by ramping up enforcement. Panelists, including State Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, and Pinellas juvenile court Judge James Pierce, said detaining troubled children often does little to help the underlying problems that drive them to crime.
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"Most juvenile delinquents have been abused themselves," said Pierce, who described how even as a judge, he tries to avoid locking up kids unless they pose a danger to the public. "They come from broken homes. They come from places where there is substance abuse, where there is mental illness. And for them to even make it into the courtroom, something is drastically wrong in their upbringing."
The hour-long discussion began with a show of hands of who among the audience had read "Hot Wheels," the Tampa Bay Times series detailing Pinellas’ car theft epidemic. Reporters found that police here make more arrests for juvenile auto theft than anywhere else in Florida. Teens rocket 100 mph down busy roads, the wrong way. In interviews, they say they do it for a thrill, and most of the cars they take are unlocked with keys left inside.
In an 18-month period, kids crashed stolen cars at least once every four days. Eight teens from Pinellas have died in incidents related to stolen cars in the last two years alone.
"There’s untold damage being caused," said attorney Dyril Flanagan, speaking on the panel.
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Solutions to the auto theft epidemic so far have focused on enforcement. Police have formed task forces to stop car thieves and visit the most frequent offenders at their homes each night. They say the system is too lenient, with children racking up arrests but often spending just a few days at the Juvenile Detention Center before being released home, only to steal more cars.
This month, a "prolific juvenile offender" bill went into effect that stiffens consequences for the worst offenders across the state. The bill won widespread bipartisan support, but Newton spoke fiercely against spending money to lock up more youth.
"We’re talking about babies," he said. He rejected the term "detention center," saying "that makes it sound sexy and nice.
"They lock you up, take your fingerprints and control your movements. That’s a jail."
Dillinger also opposed the new law at the forum, saying it goes against studies that say detaining kids can make them even more hardened criminals.
"The prolific juvenile offender bill is going back to the mentality that if you lock up people you’re going to make them better people and you’re going to protect the public," he said. "That just does not work."
At the same time, as much as he has sympathy for struggling kids, Pierce said that people who repeatedly steal cars and drive recklessly need to face consequences for their actions.
"If you don’t want to go to prison, don’t commit the crime," the judge said. "I’m sorry, but it’s got to stop with the individual."
Event organizers said they had invited St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to the forum but both declined. No representatives from the school system were invited, but schedulers said they plan to hold another session, saying much more discussion is needed. The forum was sponsored by the Fred G. Minnis Sr. Bar Association, which serves minority lawyers in Pinellas County.
The panelists called on residents to do more to help children in St. Petersburg in the face of increased law enforcement. Teens here need more mentors and positive role models, they said.
"It’s going to take everyone in this room to do something about it," Dillinger said.
Speakers were still lining up at the microphone ten minutes after the forum was supposed to end.
Lewis Stephens, a community activist who runs a local youth organization, had the last word. Sweating, with sleeves rolled up, he said:
"I love what we’re doing here but we’ve got to get to a point when it’s time-out for talking. We are losing kids every single day." He looked around the room.
"It’s time-out for meetings. It’s time to really get down to the nitty gritty. I’m done."
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.