News outlets across Florida are constantly discussing the state of the criminal justice system, and one common thread among reports is that our state and our country are experiencing a wave of violent crimes; it seems that the evening news will never fail to detail a horrific crime occurring in our backyard.
Are these assertions accurate? If so, what action can we take to make our communities safe again?
Is Florida Violent Crime Increasing?
Violent crimes are criminal offenses that involve force or violence and covers a broad array of different crimes like murder, assault, rape, and robbery. It seems that violent crimes are on the rise; however, upon examining the country's timeline of increases and decreases in criminal activity, the trends move downward, toward less crime.
While seemingly incongruent, using crime reporting data can aid in finding clearer answers. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) reported a slight increase in violent crime while simultaneously finding that 2015 was the third "safest" year in the United States in the past 20 years.
Historically, in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, crime rates for violent crimes and property crimes spiked. Today, the Pew Research Center analyzed data from the FBI and found that between 1993 and 2015, crime rates fell by 50%.
This overarching decrease in crime applies to violent crimes as well. In 1991, the violent crime rate peaked with 716 violent crimes per 100,000 people. Today, the number of those affected has been cut in half with 366 per 100,000 people affected by violent crimes.
So, Why am I Hearing Reports of Increases in Violent Crime?
Regularly, the FBI releases reports detailing criminal trends across the United States and releases the raw data to the public and to the media. Without an expert analysis and historical perspectives, it is easy for others, especially media outlets, to frame this data as empirical evidence of an increase in violent crime.
While the FBI's annual crime report has indicated an uptick in violent crime for the past few years, this data does not point to a national crime epidemic. For example, in 2016 the violent crime rate rose 4.1% from the previous year, but violent crime is still 12.3% lower than it was 10 years ago.
One report from the Vera Institute, a research organization studying criminal justice policy, further weakens the argument that increases in crime could be the precursor to a new crime epidemic.
By examining crimes rates for four different groups — those with low, low-medium, medium-high, and high crime rates, the Vera Institute found that “average rates of robbery, aggravated assault, and overall violent crime declined between 2014-2016 for all four groups,” and that “the only notable increase in the group-average rates …was for homicides that occurred in the group of jurisdictions that already had the highest pre-existing violent crime rates.”
Now, the overarching trend is that crime rates are falling across the country with certain upticks in violent crime plaguing a few particular regions. Take, for example, the most violent crime - murder.
In 2015, more than half the increase in murders in the 30 largest cities in the United States could be attributed to Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Furthermore, in 2016, murders in Chicago accounted for nearly half of the increase in that year's murder rates. This is symbolic of confined problems in some cities but is not evidence of a national crime epidemic.
What Does This Mean for Cities in Florida?
As of May 2018, Florida's crime rate hit a nearly 50-year low. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Uniform Crime Report, there were 28,640 fewer crimes in 2017 than the previous year – a 4.5% decrease. Like the previously discussed national trend, violent crimes in Florida are still experiencing small upticks.
Tampa, Florida is safer than 26% of other cities in the United States, and the annual violent crime rate impacts about five people out of 1,000. Murder is the least common violent crime that occurs while assault happens most frequently.
In another city, Jacksonville, Florida – one of the 30 largest cities in the country – the violent crime rates have fallen dramatically in the last 25 years. In 1994, nearly 1,800 of every 100,000 people were affected by violent crime. As of 2016, that number has dropped significantly to 600 people affected per every 100,000.
Can Being “Tough on Crime” Correct the Uptick in Violent Crimes?
No, in fact, the opposite might be true.
In the past, the public and our politicians have embraced a “tough on crime” stance with the paramount piece of legislation codifying this view being the Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Through the passage of time, we have watched as this law continually shapes the landscape of our criminal justice system. Some advocates point to the provisions in this bill as the foundation for our largest problem in the criminal justice system – mass incarceration.
Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 95% of those presently incarcerated will reenter society. So, rather than “locking them up, and throwing away the key,” taking steps to educate and rehabilitate incarcerated people will lead to a lower re-arrest and recidivism rate, which in turn could lower violent crime rates.
Undertaking pragmatic solutions to prepare people to reenter society is the best option for the incarcerated person, the community, and the taxpayers. In fact, the RAND Corporation found that for every dollar spent to increase access to correctional education, there was a future savings of at least five dollars.
Even the Trump Administration has seen the benefits of increasing reentry programming, with the President's vocal support and signature on the FIRST Step Act, federal prisons will have more access than ever to pragmatic reforms aimed at reducing recidivism.
By turning away from harsh retributive punishment and focusing on more rehabilitative justice, the yielding reduction in recidivism could positively impact crime rates – even lower violent crime rates – so that our state and country is as safe as possible.