School starts this week, and three teenagers who planned to attend Clearwater High won't be there. Keontae Brown, Jimmie Goshey and Dejarae Thomas were killed early Sunday when the stolen Ford Explorer they were riding in crashed and burst into flames. The car theft epidemic continues to spin out of control, and government officials, community leaders and parents should keep searching for solutions to a dangerous phenomenon that puts at risk the teens and every innocent driver they encounter.
This cannot be brushed aside as an issue only for law enforcement to handle. It cannot be ignored by middle-class, white families because the rise in juvenile car thefts can be traced to African-American kids, as the Tampa Bay Times "Hot Wheels'' investigation documents. When teenagers are driving stolen cars at high speeds, as these kids were before dawn Sunday along Tampa Road in Palm Harbor, no one is safe. The 29-year-old driver of the Toyota Camry they hit was just driving to work on U.S. 19 and now is lucky to be alive.
This weekend's horrific accident and the loss of life was predictable. In the "Hot Wheels'' report published this spring, Times reporters reviewed 18 months of police reports on juveniles stealing cars and found a kid is arrested every day for grand theft auto in Pinellas. One of the kids interviewed for that report told reporters in December that he was done stealing cars. Yet Deyon Kaigler, 16, was in the Chrysler Sebring that was stolen at the same time as the Explorer last week from a Clearwater car dealer. All three boys killed in the Explorer had arrest records, and two of three had previously been arrested for auto theft.
Some parents have practically begged for their children to face harsher penalties for stealing cars, and those cries for help were repeated again after Sunday's deaths. Perhaps, particularly for repeat offenders. Gov. Rick Scott signed into law this spring a change that seeks to crack down on ''prolific'' juvenile offenders and require prosecutors to bring cases to trial within 45 days of arrest. The Department of Juvenile Justice also is looking at revamping its risk assessment model to ensure repeat offenders are punished appropriately. But there have to be broader reasons that Pinellas stands out among other counties for car thefts by juveniles, and tougher punishment on the back end is not the ultimate answer in most cases.
Reducing car thefts by kids means more difficult, long-term work on the front end. It will require reaching kids well before high school to change patterns of behavior. It will mean working harder to ensure their educational success, providing more opportunities for kids to see a brighter future with careers and creating more ways to keep them busy. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, already is seeking federal money for more youth activities in poor neighborhoods, and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has hired two new social workers to help families obtain existing services.
Ultimately, though, law enforcement and more government programs cannot be the only answer. Parents have to take more responsibility for the actions of their children. When parents are unable or unavailable, relatives and other adult role models from teachers to mentors have to fill the void. And every Pinellas family and business can help by at least locking and securing their vehicles. Despite all of the attention on auto theft this year, the number of auto thefts in St. Petersburg rose by more than 17 percent during the first five months of this year compared to the same period last year.
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The entire community should mourn the loss of three young lives in a stolen SUV — and rededicate itself to finding innovative ways to reduce auto thefts by juveniles. As long as stealing cars and driving fast is a popular game for too many teens, everyone is in danger.