U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist is planning to bring community leaders together to discuss the dangerous car theft epidemic perpetrated by juveniles across Pinellas County.
The mayors of St. Petersburg and Clearwater said they would like to be involved and emphasized the need for action.
Crist said that Pinellas needs to find "a better path forward, to put an end to this madness" after reading "Hot Wheels," a two-part Tampa Bay Times series that documented the dangerous crashes and gunplay that threaten the region when juveniles as young as 10 steal cars left unlocked.
"This is not who we are as a community," the congressman said in a statement. "It's reckless and it's criminal."
In 2015, police arrested more kids in Pinellas for grand theft auto than any other county in Florida, and even the most populous counties across America. A Times analysis of Pinellas police reports from January 2015 through June 2016 found that kids were arrested 742 times for auto theft.
The newspaper detailed crashes that left children lying on the street with blood on their faces or required them to be rushed to the emergency room with punctured lungs. Reporters spoke with the teen thieves themselves, who described "car-hopping" and "joyriding" as fun activities that boost their social status.
"The attitudes of the kids, and the dead-heartedness of it, was most stunning to me," said St. Petersburg City Councilman Karl Nurse, who wants to consider a curfew for young teens. "I have a 10-year-old grandson, and I can't imagine a boy who's not just ... amoral, but devoid of youthful enthusiasm and feelings."
City and county leaders throughout Pinellas said they learned more about the scope and danger of the juvenile auto theft problem from the Times series; some said they were shocked by anecdotes about 13-year-olds behind the wheel and kids more concerned about their mugshots than the felony charges they faced.
"My initial reaction was, I'm going to drive over to the (Juvenile Detention Center) right now and ask them, 'What are you doing? Why are you doing this?'" said St. Petersburg City Councilman Charlie Gerdes.
"Some of their first-hand accounts and some of their terminology and this culture that's being created ... I mean, I always knew it was there, but just the fact that they're willing to come forward with it just confirms that they don't care," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
The Times analysis found that, in 98 percent of juvenile cases for which the method of auto theft was known , kids had access to a key. Many people left their cars unlocked with a spare key inside, or left their vehicle running, unattended.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said his office has been "beating our heads against the wall" trying to communicate to drivers that an unlocked car with a key inside is "inviting this to happen."
"We're really frustrated," the mayor said.
County Commissioner Pat Gerard said she wanted to ramp up a campaign to get people to lock their cars. "I didn't realize it was quite this bad," said the former Largo mayor.
Kriseman said Friday that he would consider a public awareness campaign involving billboards and television ads telling people to lock their cars. He and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said they plan to be involved in the Crist meeting. "The kids think that this is a game, but it's not," said Cretekos. "It can affect somebody's life. And it needs to be addressed."
City and county leaders said they were frustrated with state laws minimizing the consequences for juveniles charged with grand theft auto. As detailed in the Times series, kids arrested over stolen cars are rarely held in detention for more than a few hours or days. At most, a kid car thief will spend three weeks in a center with other youths before being released home to await trial. Several juveniles told reporters that time at the Juvenile Detention Center was like "daycare" and a good way to meet other young criminals.
County Commissioner Ken Welch said reading the series was "shocking to the senses."
"It just cemented in my mind that there has to be a change in the state laws. The current system is being gamed by the juvenile offenders, and in many cases, their parents are looking for help," Welch said.
A bill proposed by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, initially sought to identify certain youths as "prolific offenders," ensuring they were held in detention until their charges were sorted out within 45 days.
The bill lost some of its teeth in committee, now releasing these juveniles on an electronic monitor after 21 days. It reached the House floor on Friday and was unanimously passed.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he was not sure that harsher punishments were the answer, but that he wanted to see ramped-up efforts to reach children before they start getting into trouble and taking cars.
"I'm pushing education," said Rouson, who nevertheless supports the bill. "It might be that we need to start at the fourth and fifth grade, highlighting that joyriding could lead to death."
A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said the governor and the Department of Juvenile Justice are aware of the problem and committed to continuing reform efforts.
"Governor Scott and DJJ will continue to work together with their state and local partners on ways to protect Florida families and communities," said the spokeswoman, Kerri Wyland, in a statement.
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly said the series "brought to light many different aspects playing into the issue," particularly the devil-may-care attitude of the teen thieves quoted in the stories. "It did really take me back a little, to be honest," she said.
The DJJ plans to re-examine the scoring tool that decides when to hold juvenile offenders in detention this summer. "I do absolutely think this is going to be a part of the discussion, and an important part of the discussion," Daly said.