Youth group seeks to end youth car thefts

State and local officials came together Monday on the steps of City Hall calling on lawmakers and the community to help curb youth car theft.

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

PETERSBURG – Since 2015, 11 teenagers have died in crashes related to auto theft. Most recently, Damari Milton, 18, and Dequante Lightsey, 16, were killed when the stolen car they were driving crashed into a tree on 38th Avenue and 49th Street North Nov. 19.

A few days later, Carl McKinley, 20, Lazarius Faulk, 19, Clifford Washington, 19, and Jaquez Rouse, 18, stole a Hyundai and crashed it into Mae Speights, 67, and her 46-year-old daughter Yolanda Speights, who are still at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg with serious injuries.

“We need all hands on deck,” said Lewis Stephens, founder of I Support Youth, Inc. at a press conference Monday outside of City Hall.

The recent rash of car thefts prompted Stephens and members of his non-profit organization to call together local and state leaders for help with the car theft epidemic that is plaguing the community.

“We’re not here to blame anybody, but what we’re trying to say is if we can all come together, we can all come to the table, you will definitely see a change that’s taking place inside of here and inside of our community,” he pleaded.

I Support Youth, Inc. is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization that teaches young people how to be educated, strong and successful by providing the necessary steps to expand and become active leaders within the schools, community and churches. With no state or federal dollars, I Support Youth, Inc. has helped 183 youths to date find jobs.

State Rep. Wengay Newton, who sat on St. Pete City Council for eight years, has been a huge proponent of youth employment.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “You give these kids a job; you won’t have to deal with them.”

As a child growing up in the most impoverished area of Pinellas County, he benefited from government programs such as afterschool and summer job initiatives.

“I have no illusions on what got me where I’m at. Those summer jobs, those afterschool jobs, but for those opportunities–not those guarantees but those opportunities–I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Newton said the City of St. Petersburg just passed the highest budget in the history of the city, and that the current administration has been benefiting from surplus budgets since their first day in office. He also revealed that since Amendment One did not pass, every municipality, county and city coffers are “overfull with revenue.”

He’s asking for the city, county commission, Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) and the school board to commit to $1 million each, and “I’ll take that four million to Tallahassee and bring back eight.”

If city and county officials would commit to putting up money to stop the car theft epidemic, Newton said when the legislative session starts in March, he will be able to take those commitments to the chair of criminal justice and fight for money.

“I don’t need the money, I just need the commitment so I can put it on an appropriation and say that we have that much skin in the game,” he said, revealing that the state has more than $97 million in its budget for juvenile jail beds. “The money is there; we need the commitment. Lip service is done.”

Community activist Jabaar Edmond outlined a plan that would help curb youth auto-theft related accidents, arrest and deaths. The program is called JoyRyde, and will include utilizing existing wraparound services, peer to peer mentoring, ladder of engagement, leadership development and financial leadership skills for at-risk and troubled youth.

“The JoyRyde program is a holistic program that covers many bases, and it would take partnerships like the St. Pete Police Department, the sheriff, community groups, JWB and other youth organizations to help get it accomplished.”

“Once again, we are here, talking about more children dying,” said attorney Michelle Rayner, who is an advocate of restorative justice.

She said when a child is locked up in Juvenile Detention Center, they end up just hanging out with their friends.

“Right now what we’re needing is restorative justice,” averred Rayner, adding that the criminal justice system needs to partner with the community and invite groups in such as I Support Youth to help find solutions.

“While they are in JDC, they can be saved,” she said, revealing that the mindset has become to just direct file youths who are repeat offenders. “When we direct file them, you have 14, 15, 16-year-olds in the adult felony system facing felony charges.”

Stephens is also asking the community for help. He put out a call to action for 100 men and women in the community to become mentors. Simply put, the mentor’s job would be to make sure that their charge does not steal cars.

“Making sure that we’re giving them the necessary resources they need not to steal a car and to also make sure that we are guiding them in the way that they need to go.”

McKinley, Faulk, Washington and Rouse are all facing felony charges of grand theft motor vehicle. Although they are all 18 or older and considered adults, if the clock were rolled back 11 years and if Newton had secured the money for youth job opportunities from city council, it’s possible these four young men would be in college instead of a jail cell.

<strong>Goals of JoyRyde Mentorship program</strong>

  1. To use drivers education as a way to teach the rules of the road
  2. To provide mentoring and helping youth make sound decisions
  3. Help with obtaining learning permits and driver’s licenses
  4. To teach proper driving techniques
  5. To bring in speakers from police, sheriff, highway patrol, etc.
  6. College tours
  7. Tutoring/vocational help
  8. Trauma-informed care
  9. Basic life skills training

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