PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — It’s a problem putting all of us in danger every time we get behind the wheel. Teens are stealing and crashing cars every four days in Tampa Bay, many taking them on 100-mile per hour joyrides. Now, a new innovative idea could finally prevent teens from doing the dangerous crime.
A Pinellas County think tank believes one change could make a difference: Putting troubled teens face-to-face with the people they hurt.
Dewey Caruthers heads up the Caruthers Institute in St. Pete, which has partnered with local law enforcement to find solutions to the teen car theft problem. He explains, “We want these youth offenders to understand the consequences of their actions.”
That could soon mean two things: Forcing teens who steal cars to meet with the person whose car they’ve stolen or meet with the innocent person they crashed into while on their joyride.
Toby Anderson and Ricky Melendez were both hit by teens in stolen cars and they both say the new plan is worth a shot.
“I would like to explain to them how it impacts someone’s life when they make choices that are wrong choices,” explained Anderson, an 8th-grade middle school teacher who was smashed into by a group of teens in St. Pete while making a quick trip to the store in November 2017.
Ricky Melendez agrees: “I, and other victims would like to explain to them what that person has been through, what that person is going through, and what they’ll go through for the rest of their life. Maybe they would think twice.” Melendez was hit by a group of teens on US-19 and Tampa Road. 3 of the 4 teens in the SUV that hit him died. Melendez was hit in August 2017, while on his way to work as a manager at a grocery store.
Caruthers is also recommending the teens meet with their peers who used to steal cars and later turned their lives around.
But could this idea actually work? ABC Action News called up the San Diego Sheriff’s Office, which has the nation's largest problem with teens stealing cars, and started a similar program a few years ago. They say it's helping, alongside other initiatives, and the numbers prove it.
Auto thefts are down in San Diego County from 18,693 in 2015, to 10,600 in 2016 and 9,858 in 2017.
“That’s a start and it could be a good start,” Melendez added.
In Pinellas County, the number of stolen cars is down too — from 600 in 2016, to 468 in 2017. In St. Petersburg, auto thefts are down 10.7% compared to 2016 and have dropped 36% compared to 2015.
Melendez and Anderson worry that still means hundreds of chances for the next innocent driver to not be as lucky.
“I didn’t even know what hit me. All of a sudden my car jerked,” Anderson explained, “It changed my entire life. I have to see a chiropractor regularly, but I realize I could have been crippled for life or killed.”
Melendez agrees, “The doctors said I will probably have issues for the rest of my life. The hardest part is mental. I think about it pretty much every day. I could have died that day and that’s scary to think about.”
If Caruther’s recommendation is followed, teens would meet face-to-face with their victims in the company of a trained facilitator. The teen could offer to make amends, apologize and even pay restitution.
Pinellas County is also looking at expanding their HOME or Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is currently going door-to-door checking on some of the worst teen offenders to make sure they are avoiding the crime of stealing cars. The $2 million could be expanded if Caruthers gets his way.
In San Diego, deputies tell us preventative measures by the community are helping too. They’ve encouraged community members to add alarm system stickers to their cars, stickers that details that the car is equipped with GPS monitoring, foot brake pedal locks and steering wheel locks. Deputies who head up the auto theft task force tell us thieves don’t want one more thing to mess with and will skip your car if it seems like too much work to steal.