LAKE MARY — Hundreds more juveniles who steal cars each year could be kept off the streets under a new tool approved by a Department of Juvenile Justice committee Tuesday, a move that could put a dent in a dangerous local car theft epidemic.
Secretary Christina Daly also committed her department to improving services for young offenders who are released into the community, part of an overhaul to a piece of the justice system that officials across Florida agree is failing.
"There are kids who are being released from secure detention who are truly a threat to public safety," Daly said Tuesday.
TAMPA BAY TIMES SPECIAL REPORT: HOW TEENS ARE DRIVING PINELLAS COUNTY'S CAR THEFT EPIDEMIC
The committee — made up of judges, police chiefs, prosecutors and public defenders from across the state — voted unanimously to implement a new Detention Risk Assessment Instrument, the scoring tool that largely determines which arrested juveniles are held in secure detention, put on supervision, or simply released home.
According to an analysis of nearly 50,000 youth arrests, the current tool has failed to sort the right kids into detention, based on their likelihood to re-offend or skip their court dates.
The system, committee members said, is especially flawed for teens accused of serious property crimes like auto thefts and burglaries.
In auto theft cases, for instance, kids were released home without any supervision about 22 percent of the time last year. But under the new tool approved Tuesday, less than 13 percent of cases would have resulted in that kind of outright release. They would have been held in secure detention 62 percent of the time and put on supervision such as home detention in 25 percent of cases.
"I spent a lot of time on the auto theft cases," said Kristin Early, a consultant for the Justice Research Center who presented the analysis along with fellow juvenile justice researcher Kelly Dedel.
"We know that auto theft is a big issue here," Dedel said.
The analysis looked at how kids were screened when they were arrested and whether they went on to reoffend. Researchers used the data to determine which juveniles would be better served by detention, and which would do well if released.
The goal is not to adopt a lock-everyone-up approach. Across Florida, and all kinds of crime, the new tool would have actually recommended fewer cases for detention in 2016 than the current tool did.
But the reverse was true when it came to stealing cars, according to the analysis.
Pinellas County has been plagued by a juvenile auto theft epidemic that has claimed the lives of eight teen car thieves in the last two years. The issue was the subject of "Hot Wheels," a recent Tampa Bay Times series explaining the scope and danger of the crisis. Reporters found that kids driving stolen cars crashed every four days in the county. Police arrested more juveniles for grand theft auto in Pinellas than anywhere else in Florida.
Teen car thieves told Times reporters that they weren't afraid of getting arrested because they knew the legal system rarely holds them in detention for more than a few hours. The lack of consequences, they said, made them more likely to continue stealing cars.
The changes to the DRAI — the first in more than 20 years — could be a boon to fighting the Pinellas car theft epidemic, which sees some kids get arrested over and over.
In Pinellas, and statewide, more juveniles than ever could be funneled into "supervised release." For the new tool to be effective, state officials committed to improving supervised release, acknowledging home detention and electronic monitoring is not working evenly or consistently.
Assistant State Attorney Rebecca Shinholser, the juvenile division chief for Alachua and neighboring counties, said probation officers rarely check in with kids under their supervision. Juveniles put on ankle monitors often aren't being actively tracked, either, Daly admitted.
She said her department would work with rural counties to create options like evening reporting centers, where kids would stay after school to keep them from committing more crimes. In some cases, DJJ could staff more probation officers and create other programs.
Under current statute, most juveniles can be held in detention or put on supervised release for a maximum of 21 days before being sentenced. The department also vowed to examine what services it can provide to youths after those three weeks are over.
But Daly demurred at the prospect of requesting more funding for these various efforts from the Florida Legislature. She said the department might shift people and resources. The secretary also emphasized the need for some communities to develop their own programs.
"What works for you in Pinellas might be very different from what works for you in Miami, and what works for you in Tallahassee," Daly said.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who represented the Tampa Bay area on the committee, said the new data-driven approach will be "a seismic shift in philosophy."
"I'm confident after hearing it that it is a right move in a positive direction," the sheriff said. But Gualtieri also stressed the importance of DJJ following through on its commitment to improve home detention. "If you were to implement this (instrument) today, based on what we have today, it would fail."
The committee voted to approve the new tool so long as DJJ explores additional modifications, such as tweaks to the violent felony list, in the coming months. It plans to reconvene in 2018 to vote on any changes recommended by a subcommittee.
In the meantime, DJJ staff is set to begin building the technical platforms it will need to automate the DRAI, currently a pencil-and-paper score sheet. The goal is to remove human error and ensure the tool is used consistently across the state.
The juvenile justice department will also have to propose changes to the law that Daly expects to go through the Legislature during session early next year. These steps, coupled with a need to train juvenile justice officials on the new tool, could mean the new tool would not debut until late 2018, Daly said.
She thanked the committee for their nod of approval to get started on the overhaul: "Not doing anything, to me, is negligent to public safety."
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