St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon says Florida's juvenile justice system is broken. It doesn't have enough money or staff to address juvenile crime the way it should, he said, and kids are allowed to reoffend too many times before they suffer real consequences. So Harmon is putting the hammer down. If you are a juvenile repeat offender in St. Petersburg, Harmon and his people are going to be all over you, night and day. It is a new approach for St. Petersburg police and an edgy one, but it already has taken a bite out of the property crime rate. And in the long run, it could help some juveniles turn their lives around.
Last December, after a big spike in auto thefts, Harmon and his department identified 40 youths they suspected were responsible for many of the thefts. Two members of the Police Department, Detective Amanda Newton and crime analyst Tiffany Jordan, were assigned to keep tabs on the 40, many of whom were repeat offenders.
Newton and Jordan went to their homes and introduced themselves to the kids' families. They asked school resource officers to notify them if the youths didn't show up for class. They asked the state attorney and juvenile court judges to let them know if those 40 kids were arrested, had court dates or were under special orders such as curfews.
For 18 weeks, Newton or Jordan or patrol officers tracked down youths who didn't show up for school, accompanied them to court dates, and checked their houses late at night to make sure they made curfew. If the youths were sent out of town to a short-term juvenile program, Newton and Jordan were waiting for them when they returned.
At the end of the 18 weeks, auto thefts had fallen 37 percent, Harmon said, and some other property crimes had gone down, too. He told the City Council on Thursday that he has added 100 juveniles to the program. He hopes to both lower crime and prevent the youths from moving up to more serious crimes, as they often do.
These youthful offenders don't volunteer for Harmon's program — they are in it whether they want to be or not (mostly not). And while Harmon would like their parents to be part of the team that makes the kids toe the line, he won't give kids a pass just because their parents are uncooperative.
Mayor Bill Foster recently rode along with officers doing curfew checks on six of the juveniles and said what he saw at their homes was "an eye opener." Some parents are overwhelmed or frustrated and are thrilled to have the help of police in dealing with their children, Harmon said. But others don't welcome police involvement. Some of the parents have longer rap sheets than their children.
Harmon told council members he never considered it the police force's job to keep such tabs on juvenile offenders. But because of budget cuts and other problems, neither the state nor nonprofits are able to carry out the role effectively, especially regarding property crimes, he said. Harmon has his own budget stresses, but he found a way to take on a job that needed doing. A lasting reduction in crime would be a great result, but even better would be to redirect these juveniles on to a more productive, law-abiding path.