Anticrime millions yield paltry result
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
As the 1990s began, crime statistics portrayed Florida as the most dangerous state in the nation, a dubious distinction that became a political football almost everyone wanted to kick.
So legislators got tough on crime. They embarked on an unprecedented prison expansion program, spending nearly $600-million during the 1990s to make room for almost 26,000 more criminals. They also enacted laws to toughen criminal penalties and keep prisoners behind bars far longer.
Criminals who once were released after serving just a third of their sentences because prisons were so crowded are now required to serve 85 percent of their time.
Yet, despite that crime-fighting campaign, Florida has improved only one notch in the national ranking, to second highest. And in violent crime such as murder, rape and assault, the state is still No. 1.
How could a state that spent more than half a billion dollars to put criminals behind bars have gained so little ground, especially in a decade when the political agenda was aimed so squarely at reducing crime?
The answer is elusive, and it shows that the interpretation of crime statistics depends on who is doing the looking.
To people such as children's advocate Jack Levine, it's a case of misplaced priorities.
"You're not going to end crime by simply putting your prison budget on steroids," said Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children. "We have to invest wisely in early intervention, quality education and economic opportunity."
By indulging its thirst to punish criminals, Florida lost ground in the 1990s in other areas that also affect the state's crime rate, Levine and others say.
It's no coincidence that -- compared with other states -- Floridians today are less likely to graduate from high school or college and more likely to live in poverty than they were a decade ago, Levine said.
"The focus is in the wrong place," said Skip Babb, public defender for the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Citrus and Hernando counties.
But police and some criminologists disagree. The fact is, the Florida crime rate has declined markedly over the last decade, they say. And the very quirkiness of crime statistics and the way they are compiled may destine Florida to rank near the top indefinitely.
The U.S. Justice Department each year gathers crime statistics from nearly every police agency in the nation. It tracks a range of crimes, from headline-making murders to purse snatchings that bring a robber just a handful of nickels. Statisticians then come up with a state crime rate based on the number of crimes per 100,000 citizens.
Critics say that factors beyond the control of any police officer often drive crime, from the warm weather in which misbehavior festers to the cash-laden tourists lured by Mickey Mouse. High-growth, high-tourism states such as Florida, Arizona and Hawaii will always fare poorly, they say.
They also say that, as with many statistics, crime figures can be manipulated.
"I remember when I was in graduate school and took a course about how to lie with statistics," said state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg. "You can twist them around to justify almost any position."
Today, many of the same politicians who a decade ago bemoaned Florida's title as the nation's most dangerous state look at the same ranking system and see little amiss.
"The critics cannot deny that crime has been reduced in Florida," said state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee.
"It's quantitative. It's proven. They can argue until they're blue in the face about the reasons why. The bottom line is that it didn't start happening until some of the reforms in the 1990s," he said.
Coddled by the courts?
Crist is right about the drop in crime.
In 1990, Florida's rate of both violent and property crime was 8,810 incidents per 100,000 people. A decade later, the state's crime rate stood at 5,694 per 100,000 people, a substantial drop even if the state was still lagging behind 48 other states.
Ron Robbins, 50, is a reluctant part of Florida's statistical picture.
He doesn't think Florida has much to be proud of in the fight against crime. He believes criminals have been coddled by the courts.
The St. Petersburg roofing contractor became convinced of that when someone crawled through a bedroom window of his home in December while he was away, stealing up to $7,000 worth of his things.
The burglar, 18-year-old Philip A. Elbes II, had been arrested for several burglaries as a juvenile.
So much for rehabilitation, Robbins thought.
"I have absolutely no sympathy for him," Robbins said. "He faces 10 years, and I hope he gets more than that. He's not going to be rehabilitated. He's not sorry for what he did. He belongs in prison."
Elbes has pleaded guilty to a burglary charge. A decade ago, he might have spent a third of his sentence in prison. Today, the law guarantees that he will serve at least 10 years, with no chance of getting out even a day early, because he stole a gun during the burglary.
Legislators' intent was simple: If Elbes and others like him are off the street, they won't break the law again.
"I think people are predisposed to criminal behavior," said state Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor. "The only way to deter them is to make laws tough and make them realize we don't have a revolving-door system anymore."
But it's expensive to put an offender in a jail cell, costing an average of nearly $50 a day, according to state figures.
"We were penny wise and pound foolish in the '90s," said Pinellas-Pasco public defender Bob Dillinger. "The most expensive and least effective way to fight crime is putting someone in prison."
Dillinger said the state has long ignored alternatives, especially for nonviolent offenders. For example, counties have to fight for money to pay for drug courts, which divert nonviolent addicts from prison to drug treatment on the outside.
Most of the people who successfully complete that treatment return to their families, get jobs and pay taxes, lessening the need for welfare, proponents say.
Take the case of Eric Jackson, 29, who is nearing the end of a successful stint in Pinellas' drug court.
Jackson, 29, charged with possession of crack cocaine, was a step away from prison when prosecutors agreed to allow him into drug court.
So far, court officials say, he has stayed clean and sober, looking forward to college and providing for his wife and three children. He said he is optimistic again after thinking the system was just going to chew him up and forget about him.
"You can't just throw people in jail and think that's the answer, that it's going to make crime go away," Jackson said as he walked out of court last month. "People need hope, too."
So how do you measure whether one state is safer than another? Do the statistics used to measure crime offer a fair picture?
Though they are quick to herald the figures when they suggest a favorable trend, many law enforcement officials describe the statistics as unreliable and a poor measure of police performance.
So do some criminologists.
"They're really worthless," said Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University. "For what it's worth, yes, perhaps Florida has more crime than the rest of the country. But it's dangerous to draw conclusions based on the data."
He points to one obvious example: Tallahassee's crime rate often exceeds New York City's. Is Gotham really less dangerous than Florida's state capital?
Kleck said the absurdity reveals one of the statistic's faults. They are based on reports of crime.
A population's very trust of the police may affect the bottom line. In New York, he said, some residents come to expect that police will not respond to a report of a crime, especially minor property crime.
No report, no crime statistic.
Moreover, some police agencies have been known to make mistakes in compiling their crime statistics or, worse, to manipulate them to make their community appear safer. There is no federal penalty for failing to offer a complete, accurate report to the Justice Department, FBI officials say.
In 1999, for example, the Pinellas Park Police Department was roiled in controversy after an official alleged that he had been ordered to reduce the number of serious crimes in the department's reports. The official was fired, and an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement uncovered no wrongdoing.
Police departments in Indian Rocks Beach and New Port Richey falsified some of their statistics in the mid 1970s, and the Brooksville Police Department acknowledged in 2000 that staff errors led to inaccurate reports in 1987 and 1988.
"Some police agencies are going to be more professional than others," said Kleck at FSU.
A variety of other factors can skew results, too, law enforcement officials say.
Take the weather. Hot-weather states tend to have more crime than cold-weather states like the Dakotas or those in New England. Cold weather keeps criminals off the streets, police say.
"When people are out and about, there is a greater chance they will come in contact with each other," said Jean Itzin, a planning and policy administrator with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "It's simple. But the weather impacts crime rates."
High-growth states invariably have higher crime rates. New residents bring new opportunity for criminals.
"Florida attracts a lot of new residents, a lot of retirees and a lot of affluent people, and it attracts the criminals who prey on them," said Crist. "It's no wonder Florida attracts crime when it attracts everyone else, too."
Criminologists say there is validity to that point. A high number of transient visitors, from the Tampa Bay area's snowbirds to tourists in Orlando or students in Tallahassee, tend to drive up crime rates.
Tourists, like other transient populations, aren't included in a state's overall population base. So when they are the victims of crime, they tend to inflate per capita crime rates, said John Cochran, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
"We can anticipate that we (Florida) are always going to be up there," he said. "We're the fourth largest state in the country. Our population is concentrated in large urban areas, where crime is always going to be higher. We're a Sun Belt growth state."
For Florida crime fighters, it can be a frustrating picture that always makes it easy for political opportunists to portray those in power as being ineffective against crime.
"There's no easy answer to this," said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Perry. "Crime is not something that's ever going to go away. It's something we have to live with. We're always going to have a higher crime rate than South Dakota."
-- Times researchers Barbara Oliver, Mary Mellstrom and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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