The epidemic of teen car theft in Pinellas County is far from over. The county still averages four arrests a week—1,500 in the past five years— ranking second behind much larger Broward County, and 12 people have died in the past 3½ years. While innovative law enforcement programs initially cut the scourge in half, in the last year the numbers didn’t improve, showing that law enforcement has done what it can. It’s not possible to arrest the way out of the problem, so it’s time to turn to community-based solutions.
A study released Monday by the Caruthers Institute, a St. Petersburg-based think tank, suggests some answers: using “credible messengers” to get through to teen car thieves in ways that police officers never will, and employing “restorative justice” that would require the thieves to literally face their victims, hear the pain their crimes have caused and agree to ways to make amends.
To understand the problem, it’s necessary to adjust some thinking. As Dewey Caruthers, who headed the study, put it, Pinellas doesn’t have a car theft problem, it has a dangerous joyriding problem. Teens steal cars for the thrill, not the money, and “ankle monitors can be badges of honor.” Programs to stop this epidemic need to see the situation as the teens themselves do. And it is an epidemic, which is why Largo, only the 34th largest city in Florida, has the 12th most arrests; like a common cold, the contagion spread from nearby Clearwater and St. Petersburg. And like a contagious illness, it has spread in other ways, too, across socio-economic groups and race. The percentage of teens arrested who are white has risen while the percentage who are black has declined, and there are anecdotal indications that more middle-class teens are being caught.
One solution is “credible messengers,” adults who once went down the same path as the teens but reformed. The teens will listen to them in ways that police officers would never be heard. Caruthers studied so-called “Cure Violence” programs in other communities that use this approach and believes it could cut criminal joyriding by 70 percent and help to change social norms. Caruthers believes a hybrid pilot program could combine that concept with a “restorative justice” effort that would require the teen to meet with the victims of the car theft after every single arrest. That makes the effect of the crime real, and bringing parents and guardians into the process would drive home shared responsibility. Involving the community makes solutions easier and brings the victims into the process instead of making them outsiders.
Even before any broader solutions are settled on, there are simple and obvious things any driver can do. Too many people still leave their cars unlocked and their keys inside—or worse, running while they run inside a convenience store on an errand. And too many unlocked cars have guns inside. Modern cars are hard to steal without a key. It’s easy to make crimes of opportunity harder.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, listened to Monday’s presentation, as did Pinellas Commissioners Ken Welch and Pat Gerard and representatives from several agencies and non-profits with a stake in making this work. St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes has been involved in the effort but was sick and could not attend. However, no other elected St. Petersburg officials came. That’s a shame because Pinellas has four of the 10 zip codes statewide with the highest number of arrests, and two of them are in St. Petersburg. The city and county desperately still need solutions. It’s time to start finding them.
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