There are encouraging signs that Pinellas County's deadly epidemic of juvenile car thefts may be more effectively tackled by the community than by top-down government solutions from the state. A St. Petersburg-based think tank is studying several innovative strategies that are outside the formal legal system, and political leaders and law enforcement officials appear receptive. It will require a substantial commitment of time and money from leaders inside and outside government, but this could serve as an example of creating positive change with locally driven initiatives.
The Tampa Bay Times' "Hot Wheels" series found there were more juvenile arrests for grand theft auto over an 18-month period in Pinellas than anywhere else in Florida. More juveniles than adults were arrested for grand theft auto, another unique trend, and the legal system has not been an effective deterrent. Since October 2015, nine Pinellas teenagers have been killed in incidents related to car thefts.
Dewey Caruthers, whose institute is studying the issue, says the problem is both more dangerous and more solvable than many residents believe. He's right that the community should not accept teens racing through local streets at high speeds in stolen cars as a normal risk in an urban environment. While car thefts and burglaries may be down in St. Petersburg and elsewhere in Pinellas at the moment, the real challenge is to more effectively change behavior rather than simply demand tougher criminal penalties.
Among Caruthers' top preliminary recommendations is creating a new venue outside the criminal justice system where the car theft suspect and the person whose car was stolen meet face-to-face and talk with the help of a trained facilitator. It could be at a church or a community center or other public space. The victim could explain the consequences of the car theft, from inconvenience to lost time at work to damage or injuries. The accused, who could be accompanied by friends or parents, could offer to make amends in a variety of ways, including paying restitution. Called restorative justice conferencing, Caruthers calls it a "cutting-edge approach'' and is looking at similar programs in San Diego and Oakland as models.
Another promising idea is to train and hire younger people who have been previously involved with stealing cars and turned their life around to connect with suspects after they have been arrested for auto theft. That peer-to-peer approach could be more effective in reaching teens who are more likely to connect with younger people who have been in their situation than with law enforcement officials or older mentors. Caruthers also supports approaches such as house arrest and electronic monitoring for some teens accused of auto theft, and he is a fan of a Pinellas program called Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement. The HOME program involves officers checking with the most prolific offenders almost daily, but it isn't cheap. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has spent about $2 million on the program, and Caruthers supports its expansion.
There remain issues at the state level, such as changing the assessment scoring system so the most brazen teen car thieves are more likely to be detained rather than returning quickly to the streets. But ultimately, a community approach to reducing teen auto thefts in Pinellas will be more effective in the long run than tougher criminal penalties. The preliminary proposals are promising, and just as encouraging is the interest level among elected officials at the federal, state and local level from both political parties.