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Kids stealing cars for joyrides is not just a Pinellas County problem

One key: remind the public to lock their cars.

While Pinellas County has been leading the way in juvenile auto thefts, the problem is pervasive across the state. A new study by the Caruthers Institute found that even though Pinellas County has the most thefts per year for several years, its largest city, St. Petersburg, isn’t at the top.

That dubious honor goes to Orlando where 907 juveniles were caught stealing cars in a 12-month period compared to 866 in St. Petersburg and 757 in Miami.

Pinellas recently dropped into the No. 2 spot for juvenile auto thefts behind Broward County. That dip came after Pinellas saw a 50 percent drop in juvenile auto thefts, but shows the problem was so bad that even with such a significant drop, the county is still second in the state.

The problem is not just about theft. It’s a public safety issue. There have been 12 deaths in Pinellas County in 3.5 years.

The statewide arrests began to increase three years ago. The study shows recovering from the sudden surge is taking too long to go back down.

Juvenile auto thefts spiked in fiscal year 2014-2015 with nearly 2,500 juveniles arrested for auto theft, a 40 percent increase over the previous year. But the following two years, the statewide rate dropped just 5 percent. In 2017-2018, the rate dropped 12 percent. Last fiscal year there were nearly 2,000 arrests statewide, a drop of just 500 arrests compared to four years ago.

While Pinellas leads the state in arrests, three other counties are also seeing an ongoing problem. Pinellas arrests juveniles at an average of 5.9 people per week. Broward County follows with 5 arrests per week and Orange and Miami-Date counties average four arrests per week. Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Duval counties average two arrests per week.

Troublingly, the thefts occur most frequently among black youth males. In 2018-2019, 84 percent of juvenile auto theft arrests were boys; 62 percent were African-American. White juveniles made up 21 percent of the thefts and Hispanic youth accounted for 16 percent.

In response to the epidemic, the Florida Legislature in 2017 passed The Prolific Juvenile Offender law that established criteria to keep repeat offenders in detention, either secure or non-secure, until their cases were resolved.

The problem remained, however, that law enforcement officials were using an out-dated model to predict which offenders might be most at-risk of reoffending. Officials were using a Detention Risk Assessment Instrument developed more than 25 years ago and found that it was under-representing juvenile reoffenders. In response, the state created a committee to meet and establish a new risk assessment model to better utilize the latest statistical analysis techniques and risk-prediction methods within the juvenile justice system that was ultimately approved in 2018.

The Caruthers Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank that conducts research, crafts solutions and leads advocacy on emerging issues for the purpose of data-driven social change. Based in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Institute believes important policy decisions should be made based upon data – not ideology, partisanship or political influence, according to its website.

The study concluded that Pinellas County “cannot arrest its way out of this epidemic” and recommends the community, and others affected by rampant juvenile auto theft, increase focus on root causes and public awareness. That includes addressing social issues among offenders like past trauma and increasing signage and awareness efforts to ensure vehicle owners are locking their cars, which is a major contributing factor to kids stealing them as a crime of opportunity.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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