Teens stealing cars face tougher consequences

Some fear the move will make life harder for them later on, however.

TAMPA -- Young people stealing cars. It has been a deadly epidemic in the Tampa Bay Area.

Now, the state agency that looks into punishing youth offenders is considering much tougher consequences for teens who commit grand theft auto.

At question is whether it will keep young people from stealing cars, or just create a system with more young people behind bars.

Artimus Sanders, for example, admits he made mistakes as kid going up in Saint Petersburg, even doing a couple of stints in the youth offender program.

Now that record makes life harder. 

“It's going to be tough. Because nobody's going to give you a chance,” he warns teens making bad choices. “Like, when I got out, it's like nothing was set up for me to rehabilitate myself.”

Critics are worried there could be a lot more people in Sanders position, some perhaps resorting to a life of crime, if Florida's Juvenile Justice System adopts new, tougher rules for teens who steal cars.

But if you ask Ricky Melendez, the blame and consequences have to rest with the people who commit the crime regardless of their age.

In August, Melendez was injured and three joyriding teens were killed when their stolen car plowed into his vehicle. Melendez was left badly hurt.

“It's easy for people to place blame on others,” he said, “They just need to kind of look in the mirror and realize whose fault it really was. I mean it was the teens' fault.”

 Officials say the Risk Assessment Score for teens who commit grand theft auto haven't been modified in more than two decades.

Kids often get a slap in the wrist. And they know it. 

“If they're not seeing consequences, then they're going to keep on doing it,” said St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, whose department has been dealing with the problem.

Chief Holloway says he had an eye-opening conversation with a young repeat-offenders about two months ago. 

“He said it's a joke. One kid even said I can do 21 days standing on my head,” said Holloway.

In the last year, there has been some progress.

The HOME program, or Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement sends cops to check on teens to make sure they're staying out of trouble. 

Rev. Kenneth Irby, St. Pete's Community Intervention Director says programs like HOME, mentoring, working with teens before they make bad choices combine to form the best solution.

But Irby agrees it has to be balanced with consequences that would come with the higher risk assessment scores for teens who steal cars.

“I think absolutely it's long overdue,” he said. “I have been amazed at how thoroughly they know who the judges are, what the limited consequences are, and how quickly they will be out on the street after their first second and third auto theft.”

Artimus Sanders agrees.

“Young kids out here stealing cars? Yeah, they would think twice,” said Sanders.

The committee considering the changes meets Monday to hear from experts. A vote whether to adopt the new, tougher guidelines expected Tuesday.

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