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St. Petersburg police launch a support program for young offenders

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway speaks at a podium
St. Petersburg Police Department
The Youth Care Program connects teens arrested on non-violent felony charges with support services including counseling or drug treatment.

Teens in the program still face criminal penalties for the felonies with which they were charged, but police officials hope providing them with support services will stop them from getting in more trouble.

The St. Petersburg Police Department is trying to keep young people who get arrested from committing more crimes in the future. City officials announced a new program on Monday that will connect these teens with support services.

The Youth Care Program will largely involve the work of Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, the city’s community impact and safety liaison. She will interview families after a teen is arrested for a non-violent felony offense, such as car theft, to see what kind of help they need.

Wheeler-Bowman can then connect them to existing programs that provide services including mental health counseling, food assistance and drug treatment, among others.

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There are a lot of ways families can get support through the city and its community partners, but many people don’t know how to access them, Mayor Ken Welch said at a press conference announcing the program.

“There's a need in the community, folks don't understand the resources and a lot of parents and grandparents are overwhelmed,” Welch said. “This will fill that gap in a personal and one-on-one way.”

Addressing some of the issues that may cause a young person to get involved in criminal activity will hopefully help them make better choices in the future, said St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway.

Chart displaying how the Youth Care Program works
St. Petersburg Police Department
The city's community impact and safety liaison plays a major role in the Youth Care Program.

Kids still face legal penalties

But Holloway stressed this is not a diversion program, which often provides social services as an alternative to criminal penalties.

“The kids will still face consequences of the charges they're being charged with,” Holloway said. “They will still go through the court system because we want them to know that they did something wrong, but we're here to help them.”

Research shows diversion programs that reduce young people’s involvement in the justice system can be more effective at preventing them from re-offending than traditional punishment. Jail time can damage young people’s mental and physical health, and felony charges can make it more difficult for them to get jobs and advance their education.

While teens in the Youth Care Program may still experience some of those negative consequences, city officials say providing wraparound support services could limit harm by giving them tools to stay out of trouble in the future.

Some teens in the community are repeatedly breaking the law, Holloway said, citing an unnamed 16-year-old boy as an example who racked up 44 charges in recent years, including grand theft of a motor vehicle, burglary and probation violations.

“The initiative is to help prevent young felony offenders from repeating the cycle of crime through early intervention,” said Holloway.

Families can expect to hear from the liaison within 72 hours of the arrest, Holloway said. Participating in the program is voluntary.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.