The police in St. Petersburg is launching a support program for juvenile criminals
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The police in St. Petersburg is launching a support program for juvenile criminals

The St. Petersburg Police Department is working to prevent young people arrested from committing more crimes in the future. City officials announced a new program on Monday that will give teenagers access to support services.

The Youth Care Program will largely feature the work of Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, the city’s community impact and safety liaison. He will interview families after a teenager is arrested for a nonviolent crime, such as car theft, to find out what kind of help they need.

Wheeler-Bowman can then connect them with existing programs that provide mental health counseling, food assistance and addiction treatment, among other services.

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

“The community is needed, people don’t understand what resources are available, and many parents and grandparents are overwhelmed,” Welch said. “This will fill that gap in a personal and individual way.”

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

A chart showing the operation of the Youth Care Program

Police Department in St. Petersburg

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The city’s community impact and safety connectivity play a central role in the Youth Care Program.

Children still face legal penalties

Holloway stressed, however, that it is not a diversionary program that often provides social services as an alternative to criminal penalties.

“The children will still have to face the consequences of the charges brought against them,” Holloway said. “They will still go through the court system because we want them to know they did something wrong, but we are here to help them.”

Research shows that diversionary programs that reduce young people’s involvement in the justice system can be more effective at preventing re-offending than traditional punishment. Being in prison can harm young people’s mental and physical health, and being charged with crimes can make it more difficult for them to find work and further their education.

While teens in the Youth Care Program may still experience some of these negative consequences, city officials say providing comprehensive support services can limit the damage by giving them the tools to avoid future trouble.

Holloway said some teenagers in the community repeatedly break the law, citing as an example an unnamed 16-year-old who has faced 44 charges in recent years, including motor vehicle theft, burglary and probation violation.

“This initiative aims to prevent young offenders from repeating their offenses through early intervention,” Holloway said.

Holloway said families can expect to hear from a liaison within 72 hours of an arrest. Participation in the program is voluntary.