A kid is arrested every day for stealing a car in Pinellas County, a rate that outpaces even Los Angeles. This is not normal. Everywhere else in Florida, most auto theft arrests involve adults. Not in Pinellas, where kids as young as 10 prowl neighborhoods for unlocked cars, take off on high-speed joyrides and boast about their triumphs on social media, confounding law enforcement and endangering the public. A special report in the Tampa Bay Times exposing this frightening trend, which has eluded explanation or solution, should prompt the entire community to take notice and act to reverse it.
Examining juvenile car theft arrest records from an 18-month period, Times reporters Lisa Gartner and Zachary T. Sampson found that a stunning number of people leave their cars unlocked, often with a spare key inside. Kids are stealing cars because it's easy, and they have little fear of real punishment. Florida's system for evaluating juvenile crimes is so loose a kid could steal two cars within a month and get sent home both times.
In a single year, Pinellas law enforcement arrested nearly 500 juveniles for car theft. With kids accounting for 62 percent of all auto theft arrests, Pinellas consistently leads the state in kids committing this particular crime. And it's little surprise that these young thieves are terrible drivers. Every four days in Pinellas, a kid crashes a stolen car. At least 44 times, kids in stolen cars injured themselves or others. And one-third of all kids arrested during the 18 months examined by the Times were arrested again.
That high rate of recidivism calls for a new look at how Florida assesses which juvenile defendants to jail before trial. The system, which aims to keep those deemed dangerous away from the public, does little to punish or discourage kids who steal cars. In fact, car theft is considered a property crime in the juvenile code. But that fails to account for the hazard posed by a kid without a license trying to elude law enforcement and driving recklessly on public roads. Law enforcement agencies should maintain their policies of not chasing stolen cars, but it's clear that current laws aren't tough enough.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would allow more pretrial detentions for "prolific" felony offenders and require prosecutors to bring cases to trial within 45 days of arrest. The Department of Juvenile Justice is also set to re-evaluate its points system that currently allows car thieves to get arrested and released only to steal again before ever facing a judge. These reforms offer a tough but reasonable crackdown.
Then there's this: People need to lock their cars. At least 250 cases the Times studied involved unlocked cars. That's three a week. Fifty-three cars that were stolen had been left running. Worse, the thieves are regularly taking guns from unlocked cars. That's amplifying the danger of what could happen after a kid goes joyriding.
The Sheriff's Office and city police departments have teamed up and formed task forces to try to get ahead of the problem. They bring out police dogs and helicopters to pursue thieves and follow their trails on Facebook and Instagram. But law enforcement alone can't solve this. Records show that the growth in juvenile car theft arrests is happening primarily among black kids — and by every account it's not due to racial discrimination. It will require a broad and candid community conversation about neighborhood vigilance, parental involvement and instilling a real fear of consequences in kids to attack this problem at its roots.