A new type of career criminal is emerging — neighborhood teens. They’re breaking into cars, burglarizing homes and robbing people on the street.
Police and prosecutors acrossSouth Floridasay they are seeing hard-core youth committing burglaries and robberies over and over again and that they are largely helpless to stop what’s happening. Some have been arrested dozens of times in the span of their short life, often while they are on probation or awaiting trial for earlier charges.
In justFort Lauderdale, a Police Department crime analysis shows that a small group of teens — just 50 youths; some as young as 13 — were charged with almost 700 crimes last year. They accounted for more than half of all the juvenile arrests in the city.
Police brass believe the youths are partly to blame for a recent increase in property crime.
Fort Lauderdaleis not alone. Prosecutors in Palm Beach County were recently surprised when a youth who faced more than a dozen burglary and property crime charges was sentenced to about six months in a state residential treatment facility.
Then, there was the case last week of a 15-year-old fromPompano Beach.
He was charged with robbing two people, punching a behavioral specialist at school and throwing rocks at cars and houses. Despite a rap sheet that included previous cases of assault and theft, the teen was sentenced to probation and 80 hours of community service.
“We aren’t talking about kids arrested for the first time and whether they can be rehabilitated,” Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley said. “These are prolific offenders, and there is no incentive for them to stop. They have no fear and know the justice system is a revolving door.”
The concern comes even thoughFloridahas long had a get-tough reputation on juvenile offenders. The state has come under intense criticism for incarcerating high numbers of youths and doling out more life sentences to juveniles for non-murder cases than all other states combined.
Still, prosecutors in Broward andPalm Beachcounties say teens who commit property crime usually are sentenced to probation. At most, they are sent to a residential treatment facility for about six months. Juveniles also cannot be held for more than 21 days while awaiting trial regardless of the charges or their history and then have limited state supervision.
“Some people say it’s just property crime and it’s no big deal because no one gets hurt,” said Lynn Powell, chief of the juvenile division of Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office. “That’s not true. Homeowners don’t feel safe. People are having their cars broken into.”
Law enforcement officials say the teens add to a broader crime problem. Fort Lauderdale Police say many of the guns on the street were first stolen by kids during car break-ins, and Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti worries about them graduating to more violent crime.
“It is the career criminal we need to be concerned about, and what we’re seeing is the age of the criminal decreasing and the violence of the crime increasing,” Lamberti said.
Circuit Judge Michael Orlando, who heads the juvenile delinquency division of the Broward court system, said he is aware of the concerns. He said judges look at a youth’s criminal history both during sentencing and a risk assessment done before trial.
“There are red flags from the type of crime alleged to the number of offenses that a youth may have committed,”Orlandosaid. “We have a limited amount of time, and we focus on the cases that have to be addressed with the greatest urgency.”
Business leaders in Broward have been attempting to work with law enforcement, the state Department of Juvenile Justice and the school system to better address juvenile crime. Alan Levy, who is leading that effort on behalf of the Broward Workshop believes the answer is beefing up the area’s juvenile treatment programs.
“There are a lot of social issues that come with these kids — a lot aren’t living with a mother or a father, a lot have dropped out of school,” Levy said.
By Scott Wyman, Staff writer