St. Pete teens weigh-in on teen car theft 'epidemic'

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Teens gathered with some community leaders to discuss the plague of car thefts by minors that has been highlighted in Pinellas County, but has taken hold across Tampa Bay.

Rep. Charlie Crist led the meeting intended to shed light on what today's youth experience.

"We would love to hear from you about why you think this is happening," Crist said to the teens as the meeting opened

The Pinellas sheriff says there were 740 teens arrested for stealing cars from the beginning of 2015 to the middle of 2016. Last week in Pinellas, five teens stole cars.

Tuesday, five teens in Polk were caught on a joyride from Broward County, and three weeks ago, others were caught there with stolen cars and guns.

"Learn by example," said Pinellas Park high school student Rashon Leeks. "You see what happened when so and so did it, make sure you don't follow in their footsteps."

Leeks knew the teens in the Pinellas County crash several weeks ago. Three of them died and a fourth was injured.

"Most of us knew who they were so it's like, 'Whoa, this really happened,'" Leeks said.

The meeting was disrupted by Uhuru protestors who are fielding candidates in races for St. Pete mayor and council. They were asked to leave by St. Pete College security, and the meeting broke up while they were escorted out.

"I appreciate your maturity in dealing with what we dealt with in the outset," Crist said to the teens.

Among other things, the teens told the congressman:

- "If we give teens something to do, it just makes life better."

- "If you hang around good people, you get good influences."

- "Everything starts at home, with your parents."

- "It puts unnecessary pressure on students to feel like, 'Hey, if I am not doing this by a certain age group, I will drop out.'"

Leeks helps run an after school program for teens who get involved with one another in a constructive setting; the type of group several said would help someone who  may be on a "slippery slope."

"We give them a reason to do something outside of school," said Leeks. "We see what it is like to be a young [male] in today's time, and we make it so it is not always negative."

St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway blamed a lack of consequences, and applauded a new measure that would allow repeat offenders to be held for longer periods of time.