Tuesday, October 29, 2019

At 14 he survived a stolen SUV crash that killed three. At 15 he stole again, deputies say.

Juvenile auto thieves still plague Pinellas County

Once an epidemic, Pinellas County has seen a drop in juvenile auto theft arrests. But a study says the phenomenon isn’t disappearing. It’s evolving.

At 14 he survived a stolen SUV crash that killed three. At 15 he stole again, deputies say.

Published 6 hours ago
Last week, in the span of two days, St. Petersburg police touted the arrest of five teens and the recovery of five stolen cars.
Officers booked teens ages 15 to 18 on charges of auto burglary, auto theft and violating juvenile probation. Records show at least two of them had been arrested for stealing cars earlier this month.
The juvenile car theft phenomenon is alive and well in Pinellas County. But according to a new study by the Caruthers Institute, a nonpartisan St. Petersburg think tank, officials may not be thinking about it the right way.
The problem isn’t so much crime, the report’s author Dewey Caruthers told a small meeting of public officials Monday. It’s joyriding. People die — 12 is the toll in Pinellas County alone since 2016 — because young auto thieves enjoy the thrill of being behind the wheel.
The study followed a 2017 Tampa Bay Times series “Hot Wheels” that outlined what was then an epidemic. Kids were getting arrested for stealing cars in Pinellas County more than anywhere else in Florida. Often taking advantage of owners leaving the keys in their vehicles, the kids were pushing speeds of 100 miles per hour, swerving between lanes, rushing through stop signs and crashing. The crisis was putting everyone on the road in danger.
The problem was worsened by a pervasive lack of fear of the juvenile justice system and gaps in social welfare and mentoring programs that repeatedly failed to pull kids out of bad situations, the Times report showed. To further complicate things, the problem forces officials to combat the rush that comes with stealing cars. Auto theft has become something like social currency in some youth circles.
Add all those factors up, Caruthers said, and the joyriding epidemic became a public health threat.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said if juvenile car theft is a health epidemic, then law enforcement is treating the illness, not curing it. There were 415 juvenile auto theft arrests in Pinellas in 2015-16. That fell to 208 arrests in 2018-19 — a drop of 50 percent, Caruthers’ study noted.
But Caruthers said the phenomenon continues, only now it’s spreading demographically. Black kids still commit 76 percent of these offenses, but that number has fallen over the last five years, the report said. White children are now responsible for 20 percent of car thefts in the county, his study noted, citing numbers from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Five years ago, that number was 13 percent.
Anecdotally, Caruthers said, law enforcement officers are reporting more thefts committed by middle-income children as well.
“On the ground, it does appear that it’s becoming less of a one sector issue,” said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant Public Defender Ari Weisberg, who specializes in juvenile law. “Years ago it was an anomaly to have a white kid from Oldsmar go out joyriding.”
Gualtieri believes the rise in the percentage of white offenders likely has more to do with the decline in the share of black offenders — and the steep decline in reported car thefts overall — than anything else.

No comments: