A national think-tank has begun a sprawling study into Pinellas County's juvenile auto theft epidemic, hoping to stop the problem before more teens die in stolen cars.
The $85,000 research project, expected to culminate in policy recommendations for the Florida Legislature in January, appears to be the first probe of its kind into this dangerous youth crime.
"We're not just doing a study for the sake of doing a study," said Dewey Caruthers, president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Caruthers Institute. "This is about data-driven social change — policy change, culture change, systems change."
Caruthers said his team began investigating why Pinellas juveniles are so drawn to grand theft auto in October. Researchers are interviewing 30 local, state and national experts from organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Juvenile Justice Association and National Juvenile Justice Network.
Others on the team are studying communities around the country that have dealt with pervasive waves of youth crime, whether it be auto theft or another problem, like vandalism.
Researchers also plan to attend neighborhood association meetings throughout Pinellas before holding a series of "convenings" to share results with local and state lawmakers, officials and activists.
"Although the best efforts have been made to address it, the (car theft) problem continues," said Joe Clark, a member of the institute's board of trustees and former president of the Eckerd Family Foundation. "There should be some specific recommendations that can be implemented and put into place so that we can get a different outcome."
The institute decided to dedicate its team to the problem of juvenile auto theft after reading "Hot Wheels," a recent Tampa Bay Times series about the danger and scope of the epidemic. After three girls died in a stolen Honda Accord in March 2016, Times reporters analyzed 18 months of police records, interviewed teen car thieves and attended dozens of court hearings.
They found that kids behind the wheel of stolen cars crash every four days in Pinellas. Police officers here arrest more juveniles for grand theft auto than any other county in Florida and virtually anywhere else in the country, including Baltimore and Los Angeles. Eight teen car thieves from Pinellas have died in just the last two years.
Clark called Caruthers after reading "Hot Wheels."
"This is obviously a very serious and difficult problem for the community," Clark said. "And so we talked and I said, 'Dewey maybe this is something where we could get some partners together and really examine this issue.'"
Clark said he was especially shaken by the teenagers quoted in the series. "I was just shocked by — as many probably were — some of the statements that these young people made about their world or their future, which seemed nonexistent in many ways," he said. "They seemed to realize they were on the road to nowhere."
As part of its effort to look into other communities with teen crime waves, the Tampa Bay-based Caruthers Institute has partnered with another research firm, Human Impact Partners. The national nonprofit, based in Oakland, Calif., focuses on public health research and advocacy.
Kim Gihuly, program director of the nonprofit's Health Instead of Punishment initiative, said her arm of the study is looking at nontraditional practices like restorative justice. The evidence-backed technique, which typically involves a teen apologizing and giving back to the victim in some way, has gained traction in public schools.
"It's pretty clear that (the system) isn't working, so why not try something out of the box?" Gihuly said. "The system is in a place where some kind of innovative thinking needs to happen."
Caruthers said he is particularly interested in solutions that get at the juvenile auto thieves' motivations. His resume includes work on the "truth" anti-tobacco campaign that broke the mold when it got teens to stop smoking.
Telling teenagers that smoking would kill them hadn't been an effective advertising tool, Caruthers said, because "What do we know about teenagers? They're immortal, and they're omnipotent."
But explaining "that there's this industry called Big Tobacco" played to teens' anti-authority interests, making the ad campaign a big success.
"I was really able to learn how you can change culture through social science, and I think that's going to play a key role here," Caruthers said. "In general, the youths are doing what the systems in their lives are incentivizing them to do."
Although based locally, the Caruthers Institute has typically focused on national issues. Its past studies looked into civil citations for juveniles and the work of K-12 education foundations. Turning its attention to a hyperlocal issue was a no-brainer, Caruthers said, given the danger to the community.
Deborrah Brodsky, a member of the project's advisory committee, said she expects some recommendations to address the home lives of the young thieves.
"These kids have all been traumatized," said Brodsky, the director of Florida State University's Project on Accountable Justice, a public policy research lab. "I'm not saying that is an excuse for them to make other victims, but it's not something you can ignore, either."
Brodsky said that as they push forward, they hope to provide the community "a road map to better outcomes."
"These are kids," she said. "They have an immense capacity for change. And we should not (be) giving up. You cannot lock this problem away. It's filtered through the community too deeply now."
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