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DJJ proposes stronger consequences for teens who steal cars

Emergency personnel work to clear the scene of fatal high-speed crash on Aug. 6 in Palm Harbor. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the three boys who died in the crash had "extremely extensive criminal histories," including serial car thefts like those chronicled in the Tampa Bay Times "Hot Wheels" series. A national think tank is examining the problem in response to the series and hopes to have some solutions by January. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Dec. 7, 2017

Florida's juvenile justice department will propose sweeping changes Monday that would make young auto thieves more likely to face consequences.

This overhaul of the Detention Risk Assessment Instrument — the first time the tool has been modified in 23 years — comes on the heels of "Hot Wheels," the Tampa Bay Times series that exposed a deadly juvenile auto theft epidemic in Pinellas County.

"We know the instrument we have today is not meeting our needs," Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly said Thursday. "(Now) we're going in the right direction."

The Detention Risk Assessment Instrument, or DRAI, is a scoring tool that determines whether an arrested youth will be held in county detention centers, released with supervision, or simply sent home.

Times reporters found that teens gravitate toward grand theft auto because the DRAI's point system often sets them free within hours of an arrest — a lack of consequences that motivates them to keep stealing cars and makes them unafraid of getting caught. Police spoke of catching the same kids twice in one day, while judges felt their hands were tied.

TAMPA BAY TIMES SPECIAL REPORT: HOW TEENS ARE DRIVING PINELLAS COUNTY'S CAR THEFT EPIDEMIC

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

WRONG WAY: At 15, Isaiah Battle was the county's No. 1 car thief. He had every reason to stop.

But a grand theft auto arrest would increase from zero points to six under a draft proposal obtained by the Times and expected to be introduced at a DJJ committee meeting next week. New criteria, such as an extra "age" point for those between the ages of 13 and 16, make it even more likely that a car thief would score high enough to be detained.

"It's a crime that has serious consequences, so we need serious consequences," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, when briefed by the Times on the proposed changes.

Three teenage boys died in August when the stolen Ford Explorer they were speeding in — at over 100 mph — ran a red light and smashed into another vehicle, pinwheeling down the street in flames. Five more Pinellas car thieves have died in the last two years, including three girls who drowned after driving a stolen Honda Accord into a pond.

Police in Pinellas arrested juveniles for grand theft auto 499 times in 2015, more than anywhere else in Florida and most places in the country. Times reporters analyzed 18 months of police records and found that kids behind the wheel of stolen cars crash every four days in Pinellas, hospitalizing themselves, their friends and innocent drivers and pedestrians.

"We can't have the mindset of 'it's just a burglary, it's just an auto theft,' because these kids are running amok and wreaking havoc," said Gualtieri, who is representing Pinellas on the 10-member DRAI committee.

The proposed changes reflect research into Florida juveniles' likelihood to reoffend or miss court dates after a DRAI screening, said Mark Greenwald, DJJ's director of research and data integrity. "We are a very data-driven agency, and this analysis was data-driven."

In an interview after Hot Wheels ran, Secretary Daly said reading the teen car thieves' quotes helped her better understand the problem.

"One of the things that surprised me was the lack of fear that the kids have, almost to a point that there's no self-reflection of what the end result could be," Daly said. "The other disturbing thing to me, not necessarily as secretary but as a citizen, is this world that has been created in almost a game-like fashion. That's concerning."

One teen quoted by the Times described "doing the dash," wherein the young driver speeds northward of 120 mph to max out the speedometer on the stolen car's dashboard, then takes his hand off the wheel and uses his phone to record the dangerous feat. Another teen said she was embarrassed after leading officers on a multi-county chase — because she didn't like the way her hair looked in her mugshot.

The DRAI committee plans to meet Monday in Lake Mary to review the proposed changes. According to a draft agenda, the discussion will be led by consultants from One in 37 and the Justice Research Center, national criminal justice research firms. The committee plans to vote on the new tool after a brief public comment period Tuesday.

If the new DRAI is approved, Daly's office will pursue statute changes in time for the next legislative session, then begin training screeners. The updated tool would debut in 2018, becoming the latest aid in the effort to curb Pinellas's auto theft problem.

The St. Petersburg Police Department has begun tracking and analyzing auto theft arrests in a new way, modeled after the database Times reporters built for Hot Wheels. The Florida Legislature passed a bill that makes it easier to detain the most prolific thieves. A national, independent research firm has begun a sprawling study into the Pinellas epidemic. Congressman Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, has held three community meetings to brainstorm solutions. And in a first-time partnership, police officers are working with social workers to address the underlying socioeconomic issues that make juveniles turn toward auto theft.

Daly said she is hoping for a "productive" conversation next week, and excited for the opportunity to change the DRAI in ways that will meet the needs of the entire state. "I'm very optimistic," the secretary said. "This is the next step, and it's an important step when we look at public safety."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: THREE BOYS DIE IN STOLEN VEHICLE

Three boys dead after fiery crash in stolen SUV, Pinellas sheriff says

Teens in stolen car crash had 126 arrests; murder charges possible (w/video)

Sheriff releases video showing teens reaching 140 mph before fatal Palm Harbor SUV crash

TIMELINE:Three boys died in a stolen vehicle: Here's how it unfolded (w/video)

Victim recalls horrific crash that killed three in stolen car

He was hit by teens in a stolen car crash. Now his insurance is paying their families.

Hours after fatal stolen car crash, surviving teens talked unfiltered about the crime

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