Key Findings

There are three categories of key findings: (1) Pinellas youth arrested (2) Responses to the epidemic (3) Solutions

Pinellas youth arrested

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Anecdotally, law enforcement officers report arresting more white, middle-income youth.

Key finding 1: Arrests of white juveniles are on the rise as arrests of black youth decline at a similar rate.

Over the past five years, arrests of white juveniles has increased by 7% from 13% in FY 2014-15 to 20% in FY 2018-19. During the same time period, arrests of black juveniles dropped by 9% from 85% to 76%.


However, in FY 2017-18 arrests of whites spiked to 32% while arrests of blacks dropped to 62%.



While the decrease in black youth seems like initial good news, there are a couple of considerations: First, some of the decreases in black arrests could be youth aging out (turning 18) and moving into the adult system. Second, the decreases, in perspective, are insignificant.


Note, during the five-year period Hispanic youth represented a very small portion of the epidemic -- from 2% in FY 2014-2015 to 4% in FY 2018-19.

Key finding 2: The epidemic is spreading like the flu beyond geography, race and income

Small municipalities and middle- and upper-income families throughout the county have a false sense of security that they are immune to the teen auto theft epidemic, which is spreading like the flu.

Some small municipalities don’t perceive the epidemic to be impacting their towns, reporting no major problems with youth stealing cars on dangerous joyriding missions. Yet, logic dictates if the larger surrounding cities have the flu, it’s just a matter of time before the the smaller municipalities get it, too. Note as an example, the City of Largo ranked twelfth among Florida cities in arrests.


Additionally, the county’s middle- and upper-income families may perceive the epidemic to be limited to lower-income children, in particular African-American youth in communities of poverty like parts of south St. Petersburg. However, the data shows arrests of white juveniles on the rise while arrests of black youth declines at a similar rate (see key finding 1).


Anecdotally, law enforcement reports arresting more middle-income children.

The epidemic is spreading like the flu, which does not discriminate based on geography, race or income.

Key Finding 3: Youth (and parents/guardians) are not held accountable to victims

Youth arrested for auto theft, and their parents/guardians, face no real accountability in terms of making amends or even listening to victims explain the harm caused. And it’s unlikely the victim has a voice in consequences nor is provided any meaningful reparation for harm done.


Pinellas County’s extremely high recidivism rates clearly show lessons are not being learned from the victim perspective.

During these adolescent years, it’s important that youth learn the consequences of their negative actions to others.

Key Finding 4: Some youth see consequences like arrests as incentives.

Some youth don’t perceive the consequences of being arrested for auto theft – arrest record, juvenile detention, ankle monitors -- as negative. In fact, these youth perceive these consequences as positive -- ankle monitors are badges of honor and stays in “juvi” build street credibility.


While this perception among youth is a national trend, it runs counter to the common understanding among adults who regard being arrested, going to detention, and wearing an ankle monitor as negative consequences that should deter youth from auto theft. And it explains why many adults don’t understand why these repeat offenders “just don’t get it” as adults often say.


For these game-playing youth who get accolades for each auto theft, the juvenile justice system is not only repeatedly failing to provide a negative deterrent, but actually incentivizing future auto thefts. From this perspective, these kids are not repeat offenders, rather repeat players of the game.

The finding was identified in interviews; supported by the Institute’s survey of juvenile justice experts from the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, National Juvenile Justice Association and Florida League of Women Voters; and reinforced by the literature review.

From this perspective, these kids are not repeat offenders, rather repeat players of the game -- and they're winning.

Key finding 5: There are three simple (and unfortunate) truths about children and juvenile detention

First, kids should be kept out of Juvenile Detention Centers when possible. Juvenile detention centers often increase reoffending by making rehabilitation more difficult, providing a forum for kids to learn to be better criminals, and increasing social status.


Second, some kids need to be in detention for public safety. While Juvenile Detention Centers in Florida need reform (which is outside the scope of this study), the JDC is sometimes the only alternative in Pinellas for kids who are continual reoffenders and a threat to public safety.


Third, Pinellas County and its municipalities cannot make significant changes to juvenile detention, which is largely under the authority of the state.

Juvenile detention centers are 'crime conferences' that provide forums for some kids to gain skills and network for new contacts to become better criminals.

Key finding 6: Dangerous joyriding is exciting and fun

Based on numerous media reports, some officials believe youth are stealing cars in large part because they’re bored due to lack of afterschool and weekend activities. There is no data that supports this misperception, and this study has found that boredom is a minor contributing factor at most.


For kids prone to risky behavior who are seeking attention, they see dangerous joyriding as incredibly fun. Going 100 mph in a stolen car full of friends is far more exciting than any afterschool soccer program. In fact, it’s more fun than anything at Busch Gardens. If a major amusement park cannot compete with joyriding, how are we to expect a government recreation department to do so?


In short, a new park or basketball league is not going to solve this problem.

The teen auto theft epidemic is much more complicated than kids being bored.

Key Findings: Responses to the problem

Key finding 7: Law enforcement’s Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement (HOME) response likely responsible for much of recent reductions

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The Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement (HOME) program has been operating for three years (FY 2016-17 to FY 2018-19). There were 416 arrests the year before HOME began (FY 2015-16), which dropped to 208 in FY 2018-19 – a 50% reduction in arrests since the effort’s inception.

This is not a statement of causation saying HOME is responsible for all of the reductions in juvenile auto theft arrests in the past three years. Nor is this a study to determine causation of HOME and arrest reductions. Moreover, there are other factors that could be responsible for some of the reductions, such as drivers not leaving keys in their cars due to increased awareness of the problem, and the most frequent offenders aging out into the adult system.


Yet, it seems a fair prediction that HOME is working and responsible for much of the reductions.

Note, the total annual cost is of HOME is approximately $1.6 million, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The sheriff’s office annual cost is $800,000, and the estimated cost to participating law enforcement agencies is $800,000. Additionally, social navigators are funded by Juvenile Welfare Board at a cost not provided.

There is a strong correlation between the inception of the HOME program and reductions in juvenile auto theft arrests.

Key Finding 8: Pinellas county cannot arrest its way out of this epidemic.

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Pinellas count cannot arrest its way out of this epidemic

The epidemic was so bad in FY 2015-16 – when Pinellas had more than 400 arrests and averaged more than one per day – that even a 50% decrease in the past three years has made only a dent. Kids stealing cars for dangerous joyrides remains a public safety threat to anyone on a Pinellas county street.

Pinellas county cannot arrest its way out of this epidemic

The point is not that law enforcement or HOME need to do more -- from a law enforcement perspective there’s not much more that can be done to address the problem. Rather, the point is that law enforcement is doing all it can.

Pinellas county cannot arrest its way out of this epidemic

This is supported by the Institute’s survey of juvenile justice experts from the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, National Juvenile Justice Association and Florida League of Women Voters. A nearly unanimous response -- 96% of respondents -- either strongly agreed or agreed (strongly agree 56%, agree 40%) that “Pinellas County cannot ‘arrest its way out of this problem.”

‘Pinellas county cannot arrest its way out of this epidemic’ was an initial key finding presented to elected officials – including county commissioners, mayors, city council members – 18 months ago.

Key Finding 9: The county’s response has focused on law enforcement and ignored root causes.

To-date, the only serious countywide effort has been law enforcement’s HOME effort (see previous key findings), which involves multiple municipalities (sheriff and eight police chiefs) with an estimated $1.6 million annual budget. This law enforcement response has included strong leadership and significant funding for data-driven decisions. And, it seems to be working.

However, there has been nothing similar to the law enforcement response – in size, effort or financial investment -- done to address the root causes. While it’s understandable that local government’s initial response, which was years ago, would be focused on law enforcement, the problem cannot be solved without addressing the root causes of youth joyriding.

There is no leadership in the county to address the root causes of trauma, incentives and social norms with a similar level as has been done with the law enforcement response.

Key Finding 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.

The supply-side of the epidemic is drivers leaving keys in cars unattended, often with the vehicle running. A Tampa Bay Times analysis found that, in 98 percent of juvenile cases for which the method of auto theft was known, kids had access to a key. Many people left their cars unlocked with a spare key inside, or left the vehicle running, unattended.[1]


[1] Tampa Bay Times, Lisa Gartner and Zachary Sampson, May 1 2017 http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/crime/officials-plan-to-take-action-after-times-series-about-juvenile-car-theft/2322261

St. Petersburg police estimated that as much as 70 percent of the city’s car thefts were done with cars that had the keys left inside, even though drivers who leave their car idling and unattended can be subject to a citation.[1]


[1] Florida Lawmaker Wants To Charge Theft Victims With A Misdemeanor If Their Cars Were Left Running. Alanis King. 2017 Jalopnik Available at: https://jalopnik.com/florida-lawmaker-wants-to-charge-theft-victims-with-a-m-1821214819

Signage alerting drivers to not leave keys in cars unattended, particularly with the vehicle running and doors unlocked, can be effective in reducing the supply of cars for youth to easily steal. Pinellas County and its municipalities have not collaborated on any signage effort to decrease the number of “easy targets” – a terms used by some youth arrested for juvenile auto theft.

The supply-side of the epidemic -- drivers leaving keys in cars unattended, often with the vehicle running-- has yet to be addressed countywide.

Key findings: Solutions

Key finding 11: A public health response is needed to solve the Pinellas County “epidemic” of joyriding.

Many elected officials and the Tampa Bay Times have called Pinellas County’s juvenile auto thefts an “epidemic.” We agree. So, let’s treat teen auto theft like an epidemic.


Public health effectively treats epidemics, which includes addressing social norms, behavior and culture. An epidemiological approach to teen auto theft in Pinellas using strategies associated with disease control would include:

  • Detecting and interrupting the transmission of “disease” (auto theft and joyriding)
  • Using local credible messengers formerly involved in teen auto theft/joyriding themselves
  • Changing behaviors of those at highest risk of auto theft and joyriding
  • Shifting community norms including socially de-incentivizing joyriding


There are many instances where it’s more effective to adopt solutions from public health instead of criminal justice. For instance, in the 1990s heroin or crack addiction was considered a criminal justice issue and the solution was the War on Drugs. The emphasis was on punishment of the offender through imprisonment and shame. Today, oxycontin addiction is considered a public health issue and the solution is mental health treatment. The emphasis is on healing for the addict through rehabilitation without embarrassment. How many people would advocate a return to the War on Drugs strategy to deal with today’s opioid epidemic.

Many elected officials have called it 'epidemic.' So let's treat it like one with a public health approach.

Key finding 12: Using “credible messengers” is a proven public health strategy being adopted to juvenile arrests

“Credible messengers” is a proven public health strategy that is being adapted for use in criminal justice. As research on kids who steal cars shows, they are not inclined to take a message from law enforcement about the short- and long-term dangers of teen auto theft/joyriding. But if a person who has been through the same challenges in their lives delivers the message, they are much more likely to consider it. These are called “credible messengers” -- men and women who were themselves justice-involved and lived in similar circumstances are hired to be directly involved with youth who have been stealing and joyriding in cars.


Cure Violence is an example of a public health approach that uses credible messengers. Cure Violence stops the spread of violence with an epidemiological approach that uses the methods and strategies associated with disease control, including credible messengers who immediately respond to violence in the neighborhood. Results show reductions in violence of up to 70%. Additionally, the presence of Cure Violence is associated with reductions in social norms that support violence when compared to similar neighborhoods without the program. Recently in Florida, Jacksonville started Cure Violence programs to address rises in violent felonies.


A Cure Violence model could be adapted to address teen auto theft/joyriding in Pinellas County. This is supported by the Institute’s survey of juvenile justice experts where a large majority(81%) think a peer-to-peer, credible messenger approach has promise as one of a small group of interventions that should be considered in Pinellas?” Note, 19% answered “I don’t know,” and zero respondents answered no.

Peer-to-peer, credible messenger approaches are best practices used in highly successful teen tobacco prevention efforts.

Key finding 13: Restorative community conferences add accountability and reduce recidivism.

Restorative justice requires young people to take personal responsibility for their actions and to repair the harm to victims, and often includes parents/guardians. Restorative justice has much lower recidivism rates than the traditional juvenile legal system.


As important, the action of making amends is critical during adolescent and teen years to understand right and wrong at later ages.


Restorative justice programming called Restorative Community Conferences, a data-supported strategy, brings those who have been harmed together with those responsible for the harming - in person and with a trained moderator. It’s a face-to-face dialogue with the goal to repair harm to the victim. A contract is signed that specifically shows how the youth is taking responsibility and making amends.


In Alameda County, California, restorative justice programming was used for youth where there was an identifiable victim, including car theft. Evaluation results showed only 14% of participants sustained a new charge within 18 months compared to 34% of traditionally processed youth.


An effort toward restorative community conferences in Pinellas is supported by the Institute’s survey of juvenile justice experts. A large majority (85%) think Restorative Community Conferences have promise as one of a small group of interventions that should be considered in Pinellas. Note, 15% answered “I don’t know,” and zero respondents answered no.

Restorative community conferences have a very high level of victim satisfaction -- 91% of victims would participate in another.

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