The simple, knee-jerk response to the juvenile car theft epidemic in Pinellas County would be to crack down on offenders with an increased police presence and stiffer sentences. Thankfully, local community leaders did not stop there. As detailed in a recent Tampa Bay Times follow-up to its "Hot Wheels" investigation, a variety of ideas from multiple directions increases the odds of actually solving the cause and not just treating the symptoms.
It's hard to choose what was the most disturbing aspect of the crisis. It could be the sheer number of juvenile car thefts, which outpaced metropolitan areas as large as Los Angeles. It could be the anecdotes of children, some as young as 10 years old, getting behind the wheel of stolen vehicles because they don't fear the repercussions. Or it could be the idea that kids were crashing stolen cars, on average, every four days in Pinellas County.
This is why it's so encouraging to see the ideas proposed in recent months to tackle the issue. Since the problem encompasses both societal and criminal justice issues, the solutions should also be varied. So it makes sense for U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, to seek federal money to provide more youth activities in impoverished neighborhoods while the state's Department of Juvenile Justice is considering revamping its risk assessment model to ensure repeat offenders aren't let off the hook so easily. And this is why it was a good idea for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to hire two new social workers to help families navigate existing services while the Florida Legislature crafted a new law allowing suspected car thieves to be held longer than 21 days. And this is why police have rightly been diligent about reminding drivers that leaving keys in the car is irresponsible.
The stakes here are incredibly high. Think of it in terms of residents who cannot afford comprehensive car insurance and certainly can't afford to lose their vehicle. Think of it in terms of teenagers who do not realize that a simple night of joyriding could leave them with criminal records that will follow them forever. Think of it in terms of public safety with our roads seeing too many reckless drivers and all the hazards that entails.
We should not try to arrest our way out of this problem. Like the war on drugs, that would be a myopic strategy. It might come with some immediate gratification but it is, ultimately, a temporary solution. View this as a societal problem and an economic problem. Law enforcement, politicians and other stakeholders should be commended for recognizing this crisis requires more enlightened solutions than a pair of handcuffs and a slamming jail door.