Pinellas County leaders are coming together quickly in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation about kids stealing cars, a sign of the urgency and public danger posed by this alarming local trend. The group, which included a cross section of civic, education and law enforcement leaders, met this week and correctly recognized that reversing this terrible epidemic will take comprehensive solutions. That is a good starting point for finding ways to stop kids before they hurt themselves or others and to make Pinellas County roads safer.
In a special report titled "Hot Wheels," Times reporters compiled 18 months of police reports on juveniles stealing cars and found a kid is arrested every day for grand theft auto in Pinellas. Every four days, a juvenile car thief crashes a car. The scale of the problem is outsized in Pinellas. It most other places in Florida, adults account for most auto theft arrests. But here, kids as young as 10 get behind the wheel and take off on hazardous joyrides. It's a crime that's effortless to commit and easy to repeat. A shocking number of cars that are stolen have been left unlocked, often with a key inside. And kids who steal face few repercussions. Even when they're caught, they are rarely held for long, so many go back out and steal again. On social media and in interviews with the Times, they brag about the excitement and cachet that comes with "doing the dash." The series illustrated a problem with roots that are cultural, concentrated among a relatively small number of kids who pose a widespread danger. And Florida's legal system is unequipped to halt it.
The findings led U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, to convene a meeting Monday night at St. Petersburg College's Midtown campus. It was a significant gathering that brought together mayors, city council members, law enforcement officials, school board members, academics, juvenile justice officials, public defenders, clergy and community activists. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called the car theft scourge "the No. 1 public safety issue in Pinellas County." He helped craft legislation that passed this session and awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature that seeks to crack down on "prolific" juvenile 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 the points system that allows car thieves to get arrested and released only to steal again before ever facing a judge. Those reforms are clearly needed to slow repeat car thieves and create more of a deterrent. But punitive measures alone won't solve this.
Times reporters found that the rise in juvenile car theft arrests can be traced to primarily African-American kids. The mother of one prolific thief acknowledged she hadn't seen her son, 13, in a week. Other parents practically begged for harsher penalties for their kids, who have no fear or respect for the legal system. Involving parents must be part of the equation. And there's no doubt that the public could do one simple thing to drastically cut down on thefts: lock their cars. A public campaign calling attention to this neglectful behavior is an appropriate and easy first step.
Beyond that, nothing else about this problem is easily solved. Pinellas leaders deserve credit for reacting quickly when confronted with a problem that few knew had gotten so bad. New legislation clamping down on the worst offenders will help, but collective action at the local level is the critical next step to curbing this deadly game. Don't let up.