Sunday, June 24, 2018
Public safety

How state leaders are trying to fix the juvenile car theft problem in Pinellas

How can a system allow dozens of kids to be arrested twice for felony grand theft auto, and still go on to steal another car?

Florida's juvenile justice system has undergone drastic reform in the last decade, shifting from locking up kids to giving them counseling, curfews and community service. Many young car thieves are sent home from court, told to follow the rules and stay out of trouble.

Advocates say no child is beyond hope for rehabilitation. They say the system works for many kids. But critics contend it trivializes the crimes of the most flagrant offenders.

"I think there's some folks out there, the advocates, who think counseling can change all that by saying you've got to be good, you've got to be good," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. "But if they're not good, what do you do? That's a question we don't have an answer for, at least with the current system."

READ THE SERIES: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

Problem: Stealing a car isn't enough to land a kid in detention. Pre-trial detention for kids isn't about punishment; it's about keeping those deemed to be dangerous away from the public until their charges are sorted out. To assess this danger level, arrested juveniles are immediately screened according to a point sheet called the Detention Risk Assessment Instrument. To be held in detention, a child has to earn 12 points. Anything less, and they're sent home to a parent or guardian. A first-time car thief with an otherwise clean record will score zero points. Even a kid arrested again after stealing another car two weeks later may score only nine points, not enough to be held.

Solution? This summer, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice plans to convene a committee to examine the risk assessment tool for the first time in nearly a decade, said DJJ Secretary Christina Daly. "We recognize that the kids have changed, times have changed," she said. Asked if she would recommend a scoring change, Daly said she didn't know. But, "the kids that are the biggest threat to public safety, I want to see those kids in detention."

Problem: Even some of the worst offenders can't be held for more than 21 days, a limit set by state law. Decades ago, most cases went to trial within those three weeks. Now, with soaring case volumes and plodding bureaucracy, a kid's day in court could be months off, making the 21-day limit arbitrary.

Solution? State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, proposed a bill that would have extended the 21-day detention limit to 45 days for "prolific offenders" who meet criteria including prior felony arrests. The bill, however, was changed in committee so prolific offenders will instead be required to stay on an electronic monitor after their 21 days in JDC and until their case is complete. Prosecutors will be required to bring a case to trial or a plea agreement within 45 days. The bill, drafted in collaboration with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, will affect an estimated 371 juveniles statewide if passed. It is set to go before the House for a vote as early as this week.

Problem: Even kids sentenced to serve time in residential programs are sometimes sent home first, to wait for a bed to open up. There are only so many spots — about 2,000 — available in programs across the state. According to a state Senate analysis, children awaiting placement last year committed more than 4,300 new offenses across the state.

Solution? Another provision in Latvala's bill seeks to address this problem. Under the proposal, juveniles sentenced to programs will be required to await placement in secure detention until a spot is available. The bill is expected to cost nearly $6 million. Gov. Rick Scott has also proposed adding 60 beds to the state's residential programs in his latest budget, according to the DJJ.

Comments
Authorities find

Authorities find "inmate" who walked away from Bilirakis event

The 23-year-old man who authorities said walked away from a New Port Richey political event while under supervision of a treatment center on Saturday has been located.The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office described Nicholas Moore, 23, as both an "inmate"...
Updated: 7 hours ago
FHP: Wrong-way driver hit 100 miles per hour before sideswiping car

FHP: Wrong-way driver hit 100 miles per hour before sideswiping car

A Clearwater man who authorities said sideswiped a car while driving more than 100 miles per hour the wrong way on U.S. 41 was arrested Friday. Wendel Jamel James, 35, is charged with DUI with property damage, reckless driving and leaving the scene ...
Published: 06/23/18
Tampa boy, 14, shot on bike, police asking for help

Tampa boy, 14, shot on bike, police asking for help

TAMPA — Police want to know who shot 14-year-old De’Nico Thomas after a night of playing video games.Thomas was at a friend’s home Wednesday night and walking home when Tampa police said he was shot, resulting in life-threatening injuries.As he faces...
Published: 06/22/18
Clearwater police search for ‘Bic Bandit’ accused of stealing lighters

Clearwater police search for ‘Bic Bandit’ accused of stealing lighters

CLEARWATER — Police detectives are searching for a man coined the "Bic Bandit" based on reports that he’s stolen dozens of lighters from the same 7-Eleven.According to Clearwater police, the man has swiped the lighters four times in the last month, t...
Published: 06/22/18
FHP: One dead, three seriously injured in head-on Pasco crash

FHP: One dead, three seriously injured in head-on Pasco crash

DADE CITY — A Dade City man was killed and three others were seriously injured after a pickup truck and motorcycle crashed head-on Friday morning, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.Floyd Williamson, 72, of Lakeland, was driving northbound on U....
Published: 06/22/18
Body of missing Hernando park ranger found in Georgia; boyfriend being questioned

Body of missing Hernando park ranger found in Georgia; boyfriend being questioned

Georgia detectives on Friday recovered the body of Mitzi Marie Babb, a 43-year-old Hernando park ranger who had been missing since Tuesday.Her boyfriend, arrested Thursday on unrelated charges, has been called a person of interest in her disappearanc...
Published: 06/22/18
A Pasco driver was annoyed another driver was texting. So he pointed a firearm at her.

A Pasco driver was annoyed another driver was texting. So he pointed a firearm at her.

PORT RICHEY — A 41-year-old Uber driver was arrested Friday after police said he pointed a firearm at another driver because he was annoyed that she was texting and driving.Philip Macchio was driving near State Road 52 and U.S. 19 around 12:30 a.m. F...
Published: 06/22/18
Deputies: Cheerleading coach sent explicit images to 16-year-old

Deputies: Cheerleading coach sent explicit images to 16-year-old

A 28-year-old cheerleading coach faces charges for engaging in "inappropriate behavior" with a 16-year-old girl, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.Victor Martin Valenty faces 10 counts of traveling to meet a minor, distributing ob...
Published: 06/21/18
Updated: 06/22/18
Suspect arrested in rapper XXXTentacion’s shooting death

Suspect arrested in rapper XXXTentacion’s shooting death

FORT LAUDERDALE — Authorities in Florida have arrested a suspect in the killing of rising rap star XXXTentacion, who was fatally shot in his luxury BMW electric car as he left an upscale motorcycle dealership. Dedrick Devonshay Williams, 22, o...
Published: 06/21/18
St. Pete police: Three lieutenants lied about their work hours

St. Pete police: Three lieutenants lied about their work hours

ST. PETERSBURG — Three lieutenants responsible for supervising the police officers who patrol the city were found to have been faking their work hours instead of showing up for duty on time.In some cases, the watch commanders submitted time sheets st...
Published: 06/21/18