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Crime rate falls faster than ever

Florida officials credit good times, harsher laws and an upswing in drug arrests for the 10.8 percent plunge.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's crime rate declined more last year than it has since the state began keeping annual records three decades ago.

The overall crime rate, or the number of crimes per 100,000 people, fell 10.8 percent in 1999, a dramatic drop that the state's top law enforcement official attributed to stiffer prison sentences, a continuing crackdown on drug crimes and a booming economy.

In west-central Florida, crime dropped in four counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Citrus and Pasco. Local officials have several theories about the reasons.

Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice and Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder credit get-tough sentencing laws that put criminals behind bars longer. St. Petersburg police say more people are getting involved through neighborhood associations and contact with community police officers.

The crime rate rose 11.5 percent in Hernando County, but officials there blamed past statistical errors for the jump.

Statewide, every category of violent crimes declined, with the number of murders decreasing by 11.4 percent, from 966 two years ago to 856 last year.

The total number of crimes in Florida last year, 934,349, fell below 1-million for the first time in 13 years. But officials said the total number of crimes was still too high.

"I doubt very seriously that any of those 934,000 victims of that reported crime would see much good news," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner James T. "Tim" Moore.

Moore said the strong economy and low unemployment rate played a role in the decline. But he said more credit should go to an increase in drug arrests and Gov. Jeb Bush's new "10-20-Life" gun-crimes law that went into effect last year.

Moore said many criminals are smart, but not smart enough to be steered straight by a good economy.

Instead, he said some were deterred by a high-profile advertising campaign about "10-20-Life," which imposes lengthy sentences for using a gun while committing certain crimes.

Bush said Thursday that the law sends a clear message: "Use a gun and your next home will be a state prison, and we do have room at the inn." The state prison system has expanded dramatically in the last decade.

At a morning news conference, Bush suggested he would not support further gun control.

"We have a lot of laws right now," he said.

Referring to this week's school shooting and shootings at two fast food restaurants in Pennsylvania, the governor said: "It's clear that unless we want to have a police state, you cannot legislate against these random, senseless acts of violence.

"There's something that is far more powerful at work here (in these shootings)," Bush added. "I'm not sure we could even create a law. . . . It would be very difficult to eliminate these acts."

At the news conference, Bush and Moore pointed to a chart that they said showed a connection between the statewide decrease in crime and an increase in drug arrests.

Approximately 70 percent of all crimes last year were "drug-driven or drug-related," Moore said. The number of drug-related arrests has increased 61 percent over the past five years, while crime has fallen nearly every year since 1989.

Bush has proposed increasing drug prevention, intervention and treatment, and Thursday he restated his commitment to reducing drug use by half during his time as governor.

Juvenile crime dropped less than 1 percent, Moore said.

"They're getting poisoned early," Moore said. "They're getting into a cycle and not getting out."

Bush has proposed extending the time some juvenile offenders spend in rehabilitation facilities in order to increase the chances that juveniles will not commit new crimes upon their release.

Most crimes are committed by people under 30, and Moore and Bush both pointed to the state's aging population as another reason for the decline. But Moore also acknowledged that a growing number of Floridians under 30 could lead to a increase in crime.

Moore said announcing a decrease in crime can mislead the public and legislators who control law enforcement spending. "We're encouraged by (the numbers)," he said. "But we can't take our eyes off the prize."

"These are more than just numbers," he added. "These are real human beings who've been victimized."

In Pinellas County, the crime rate was down 8.5 percent; in St. Petersburg it dropped 8 percent; and in Clearwater, 7.5 percent.

The St. Petersburg Police Department touted its close working relationship with neighborhood associations; the city now has 100.

If neighbors are in touch with community officers and crime-watch groups, the theory goes, they'll know how to secure their homes, their cars and themselves.

"Criminals look for crimes of opportunity. They're looking for folks who aren't alert, who look like they'd be a good victim," said Assistant Police Chief Rick Stelljes. "If you look at people's awareness of what's going on in their neighborhood, it's better than it's ever been."

Times staff writers Mike Brassfield and Jamie Malernee contributed to this report.

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