How state leaders are trying to fix the juvenile car theft problem in Pinellas

"We recognize that the kids have changed, times have changed," says Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary 
Christina Daly. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
"We recognize that the kids have changed, times have changed," says Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published April 27, 2017

How can a system allow dozens of kids to be arrested twice for felony grand theft auto, and still go on to steal another car?

Florida's juvenile justice system has undergone drastic reform in the last decade, shifting from locking up kids to giving them counseling, curfews and community service. Many young car thieves are sent home from court, told to follow the rules and stay out of trouble.

Advocates say no child is beyond hope for rehabilitation. They say the system works for many kids. But critics contend it trivializes the crimes of the most flagrant offenders.

"I think there's some folks out there, the advocates, who think counseling can change all that by saying you've got to be good, you've got to be good," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. "But if they're not good, what do you do? That's a question we don't have an answer for, at least with the current system."

READ THE SERIES: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

Problem: Stealing a car isn't enough to land a kid in detention. Pre-trial detention for kids isn't about punishment; it's about keeping those deemed to be dangerous away from the public until their charges are sorted out. To assess this danger level, arrested juveniles are immediately screened according to a point sheet called the Detention Risk Assessment Instrument. To be held in detention, a child has to earn 12 points. Anything less, and they're sent home to a parent or guardian. A first-time car thief with an otherwise clean record will score zero points. Even a kid arrested again after stealing another car two weeks later may score only nine points, not enough to be held.

Solution? This summer, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice plans to convene a committee to examine the risk assessment tool for the first time in nearly a decade, said DJJ Secretary Christina Daly. "We recognize that the kids have changed, times have changed," she said. Asked if she would recommend a scoring change, Daly said she didn't know. But, "the kids that are the biggest threat to public safety, I want to see those kids in detention."

Problem: Even some of the worst offenders can't be held for more than 21 days, a limit set by state law. Decades ago, most cases went to trial within those three weeks. Now, with soaring case volumes and plodding bureaucracy, a kid's day in court could be months off, making the 21-day limit arbitrary.

Solution? State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, proposed a bill that would have extended the 21-day detention limit to 45 days for "prolific offenders" who meet criteria including prior felony arrests. The bill, however, was changed in committee so prolific offenders will instead be required to stay on an electronic monitor after their 21 days in JDC and until their case is complete. Prosecutors will be required to bring a case to trial or a plea agreement within 45 days. The bill, drafted in collaboration with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, will affect an estimated 371 juveniles statewide if passed. It is set to go before the House for a vote as early as this week.

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Problem: Even kids sentenced to serve time in residential programs are sometimes sent home first, to wait for a bed to open up. There are only so many spots — about 2,000 — available in programs across the state. According to a state Senate analysis, children awaiting placement last year committed more than 4,300 new offenses across the state.

Solution? Another provision in Latvala's bill seeks to address this problem. Under the proposal, juveniles sentenced to programs will be required to await placement in secure detention until a spot is available. The bill is expected to cost nearly $6 million. Gov. Rick Scott has also proposed adding 60 beds to the state's residential programs in his latest budget, according to the DJJ.