Pinellas County currently ranks second in the state for most juvenile auto theft arrests, having recently lost the top spot to Broward County.
The Pinellas County teen auto theft epidemic continues
Pinellas county, Florida is in the midst of an “epidemic” of kids stealing cars for dangerous joyriding. Over the past five years, there have been more juvenile auto theft arrests in Pinellas than any other county in the state – by far.
The problem is so bad in Pinellas that even a 50% reduction in juvenile auto thefts in the past three years only dented the epidemic, with the county still ranking second in the state in fiscal year 2018-19 (thanks to Broward county maintaining the top spot on the state’s worst list.) Additionally, four of the state’s top 10 zip codes for juvenile auto theft arrests are in Pinellas.
Pinellas County response
Much of the “dent” in the epidemic likely came from the county’s major response: The Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement (HOME), which is led by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as part of a collaboration of nine different law enforcement agencies in Pinellas County. The purpose is for law enforcement to monitor the county’s most frequent youth re-offenders (minimum of five felony arrests required), regularly checking in unannounced.
The goal of HOME is not to re-arrest. It’s just the opposite, with officers directed to focus on making sure youth are where they are supposed to be, such as honoring a curfew. Additionally, HOME uses “social navigators” – trained social workers who connect HOME youth and their families with social and healthcare services.
Law enforcement -- which has done all it can – should not be expected to solve the entire problem. Root causes – like trauma, incentives and social norms – must be cost-effectively addressed through a data-supported public health approach in order to solve the teen auto theft epidemic.
A statewide problem magnified in Pinellas
Pinellas County’s teen auto theft epidemic has gotten a lot of attention. What’s not getting as much notice is that juvenile auto thefts are a statewide problem.
Florida's huge increase in juvenile auto theft arrests three years ago – up 40% from the previous year -- is declining at dangerously slow rates. This means that many counties throughout the state have been experiencing the same problem as Pinellas only at lower, nonetheless dangerous, levels.
State of Florida response
By 2016, it became apparent Florida had a growing juvenile auto theft problem. The State of Florida’s response essentially was two-fold: The Prolific Juvenile Offender Law to address repeat offenders and The Detention Risk Assessment Instrument (DRAI) to better predict the risk of re-offense.
There are three categories of key findings:
Youth Arrested, responses to the epidemic, and soutions
1. Arrests of white juveniles are on the rise as arrests of black youth decline at a similar rate.
2. The epidemic is spreading like the flu beyond geography, race and income.
3. Youth (and parents/guardians) are not held accountable to victims.
4. Some youth see consequences like arrests as incentives.
5. There are three simple (and unfortunate) truths about children and juvenile detention.
6. Dangerous joyriding is exciting and fun.
Responses to the problem
7. Law enforcement’s Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement (HOME) response likely responsible for much of recent reductions.
8. Pinellas county cannot arrest its way out of this epidemic.
9. The county’s response has focused on law enforcement and ignored root causes.
10. There has been no countywide coordinated signage and awareness effort to alert drivers to not leave keys in cars unattended, a very large contributor to the epidemic.
11. Law enforcement’s Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement (HOME) response likely responsible for much of recent reductions.
12. Pinellas county cannot arrest its way out of this epidemic.
13. The county’s response has focused on law enforcement and ignored root causes.
14. There has been no countywide coordinated signage and awareness effort to alert drivers to not leave keys in cars unattended, a very large contributor to the epidemic.
This highly dangerous joyriding is an immediate and intricate problem that requires an epidemiological approach using the methods and strategies associated with disease control.
Recommendations focus on data-supported, public health solutions from national models. For the problem to be solved, root causes – trauma, incentives and social norms -- must be addressed.
This will involve engaging the community with proven approaches that range from having offenders make amends with victims to using “credible messengers” as interrupters with juvenile repeat offenders.
A pilot program with these and other components that prioritizes public safety, accountability and youth outcomes is being recommended to the City of St. Petersburg.
Solutions to the epidemic should focus on the real problem, which is dangerous youth joyriding.
St. Petersburg should explore a pilot to reduce dangerous youth joyriding by addressing root causes like trauma, incentives and social norms.
Pinellas County and its municipalities should develop signage and awareness efforts to address the supply side of the epidemic.
This is an independent study that focuses on data, specifically ignoring local politics as well as partisan and ideological talking points and perspectives.
Research included an international literature review of the problem and a national literature review of potential solutions, as well as data collection on juvenile auto theft arrests in Pinellas County and the State of Florida.
The author had ongoing contact with key elected officials on the federal, county and local levels, including Congressman Charlie Crist, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and St. Petersburg Council member Charlie Gerdes. Additionally, the author garnered input from more than 113 people, including in-person meetings with:
- Five Pinellas judges
- Four mayors and city managers
- Three police chiefs
- Four county commissioners
- Public defender
- One state senator and one state representative
- Three staff with the court juvenile behavioral evaluation program
- One law enforcement officer and two research analysists with HOME
- Nearly 20 youth and families who’ve been involved in teen auto theft, including teenagers arrested.
- Key community leaders and community organizations that advocate for the African-American community.
- Community advisory board led by a former juvenile judge.
- The author also toured the Pinellas Juvenile Detention Center, Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center, and Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement (HOME). Moreover, researchers interviewed via phone 11 data-supported program interventions -- explored as potential solutions – from the literature reviews.
Lastly, the study was informed by a survey of 33 experts that included former judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and those currently working as social workers, child advocates and policy makers from state and national juvenile justice organizations.
October 6, 2017
The juvenile grand theft auto epidemic in Pinellas County.