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  1. Opinion

Teen auto theft in Pinellas is still an epidemic

We need to treat this problem as we would an infectious disease, says the think-tank author of a study.
Dewey Caruthers [ The Caruthers Institute ]

Twelve people have died in the past 3 ½ years because of the epidemic of teens stealing cars in Pinellas County for dangerous joyrides.. And the epidemic continues, as a study we will release Monday shows.

In fact, Pinellas has four of the 10 worst zip codes in Florida for juvenile auto theft arrests, up from only one last year. We can’t arrest our way out of this problem, although our study will show support for programs such as the Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement (HOME) program, led by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as part of a collaboration of nine law enforcement agencies. HOME monitors the most frequent youth re-offenders in Pinellas, regularly checking in unannounced. It is not an effort to re-arrest youth, but to help prevent them from re-offending. And it’s working.

But it’s not nearly enough. To stem dangerous joyriding, St. Petersburg – ground zero for the Pinellas teen auto theft epidemic -- should start a pilot program with several facets, among them: Have offenders make amends with victims, use “credible messengers” as interrupters to break the chain of repeat offending, and use the methods and strategies associated with disease control. It will take the community, not just cops, to solve this problem.

When teen auto theft arrests dropped by 35 percent in fiscal year 2017-18, too many local elected officials effectively claimed success, saying that a phenomenon they’d called an epidemic a year before wasn’t even a problem anymore. But the data shows the decline has been drastically overstated. The epidemic continues: Pinellas still ranked second in the state with an average of four juvenile auto thefts per week.

Elected officials should quit looking to law enforcement, which has done all it can, to solve the entire problem. Root causes like trauma, incentives and social norms need to be addressed with data-supported solutions to cost-effectively drive down rates.

St. Petersburg ranked fourth among cities in the state in 2018-19 with more juvenile auto theft arrests than larger cities like Tampa and Jacksonville. St. Petersburg still ranks second overall for the past five years, with Orlando taking the top ranking. Mayor Rick Kriseman’s spokesman has claimed that the city already has “a solid grip on the issue” and that “strides have been remarkable thanks to our police efforts and our community’s help.” Many other elected officials throughout the county take a similar position. But these opinions don’t match the facts.

Troubling data for the fiscal year 2018-19 was just released last week by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. While there were 17 fewer arrests in Pinellas -- down from 225 to 208 -- the drop was so small the county still averages four arrests per week, the same as the previous year. As before, Pinellas again ranked second in the state. (Broward County maintained the worst-ranking.)

Pinellas actually got worse in other areas. The number of Pinellas zip codes ranking in the top 10 for juvenile auto theft arrests in the state increased exponentially – from one zip code in 2017-18 to four in 2018-2019. They are: 33771 (Largo) fourth; 33755 (Clearwater) fifth; 33705 (St. Petersburg) sixth; and 33711 (St. Petersburg) seventh.

Our role as a think tank is to advocate for solutions-based on data, regardless of political ideology, partisan narratives or local politics. My job leading the independent study is to purposefully be oblivious to such distractions. We were given $55,000 by the Pinellas Community Foundation, United Way Suncoast, Clark Family Fund and St. Petersburg City Council to underwrite the study.

On Monday, we will host a convening of federal, state and local elected officials to see the final study. Those who believe that St. Petersburg -- or Pinellas or any municipality -- has a “strong grip on the problem” will have to face the numbers, which don’t lie.

Dewey Caruthers is president of the Caruthers Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that conducted the study on the juvenile auto theft epidemic in Pinellas County.


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