Long before he started crunching the numbers, Florida State University (FSU) criminologist Bill Bales knew Florida's crime rate, like that of the nation, had been dropping for years.
But it wasn't until he began analyzing the state's crime statistics over the last 30 years that he realized just how safe the state has become.
“I was astonished by the consistency of the decline and the magnitude of the decline,” said Bales, of FSU's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
“Somebody should be advertising the fact that the level of safety of citizens and tourists over the last 20 years has improved by 52 percent. It's been cut in half. That is remarkable.”
A study by Bales and criminologist Alex Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas found dramatic decreases in overall crime rates from 1991, when Florida's crime rate peaked, to 2010 in all seven “index crimes” tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)— murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft — as well as property crimes.
“It is tremendous news,” Bales said. “Can you imagine if cancer rates had declined by 52 percent and almost consistently every year over 20 years? We would be dancing in the streets.”
No magic bullet
So, what's driving Florida's historic decrease in crime? Bales, like other criminologists who have studied the national phenomenon, says there is no clear, single answer.
“It's probably myriad factors, but trying to identify those are much more difficult, we found, than one might expect,” Bales said.
The Bales-Piquero study looked at changes in state demographics, law enforcement resources and efficiency, unemployment and poverty rates and found no one factor could explain the crime-rate changes over time.
The only significant correlation the study found between Florida's crime-rate drop was increased imprisonment rates.
Bales, who was director of research for the Department of Corrections before coming to FSU in 2003, found that from 1980 to 2010, as crime rates went down, Florida's prison population ballooned nearly 170 percent.
But that alone does not explain what has been happening, he said.
“The capacity to unequivocally state the precise reasons for the crime drop does not exist at this time,” Bales' study notes.
Criminologist James Austin, former director of the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University, pointed out in other states, such as New York, which has seen the nation's sharpest decline in crime rates, prison populations have been shrinking as crime has dropped.
He said no study has shown imprisonment is the primary driver of crime rates.
“I think there is some effect of imprisonment, but I would hardly say it is dramatic,” said Austin, now president of the nonprofit JFA Institute.
Austin said there are “all sorts of reasons” contributing to the nation's drop in crime, including the reduction of people on public assistance and the lack of cash money now on the street.
“If you go to steal today, what do you steal?”
Need for Answers
Bales says it is essential that Florida do more to determine what has been driving the crime rate down.
The main recommendation of the study is the creation of a working group of experts from various fields to assess the state's crime statistics released each year and look for trends.
“More attention should be devoted to this essential question — 'Why are we so much safer today annually, on a consistent basis, than we were 20 years ago?' ” Bales said.
“If it's something that is tangible that we are doing as a government or as a society or culturally, we need to keep doing it; and we need to do more of it.
” If things start to change and go in reverse order, we need to be cognizant of it and hopefully be able to identify what's changed so it doesn't continue.”
Bales' study also recommends a closer look at crime trends in individual counties and how they may be driving state rates overall.
Such an analysis could help provide clarity and context to what the local statistics mean. Last year, Forbes magazine declared Tallahassee the eighth-most dangerous city in the nation by using crime-rate numbers from the metropolitan area.
The crime rate has been ticking up in Leon County the last two years — by 5.7 percent in 2011 and 2 percent in 2010 — but the contention that the city is crime-riddled was declared preposterous by local officials.
Last year, according to the study, five out of 100 Leon County residents were victims of one of the FBI's index crimes.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey says Bales' idea of a multidisciplinary group devoted to analyzing the crime rates is a good one.
“This commission could go a long way toward educating the public,” Bailey said. “We have been proud of what we have been able to present the last several years, but we know we won't be able to do that forever.”
Bailey credits better trained law enforcement officers and the vast technological advances of the last two decades as key factors driving the crime-rate drop and improved public safety.
Forensics and data collection, particularly the state's DNA database, have improved dramatically.
The state's growing DNA database contains about 800,000 profiles and is searched by law enforcement officials 300 to 400 times a day, Bailey said, resulting in arrests of felons who might not otherwise be tied to their crimes.
“To get into that database, you already have done something bad, so you are taking the worst of the worst off the streets with that database,” he said. “That is contributing to the lowering of the crime rate.”
Steve Casey, executive director of the Florida Sheriffs Association, agreed a variety of factors have led to the dramatic decrease in crime in Florida. The factors include: tougher sentencing laws, increased incarceration rates and better technology.
Efforts to mobilize the community to report crime also have helped, but there are unanswered questions.
He supports Bales' idea of a working group to tackle the issue.
“FDLE would be the right group to head up this research effort,” Casey said. “Information from such research could be used to further enhance our efforts.”
Other factors, such as the prevalence of surveillance cameras may be significant, but Bailey agreed more definitive information is needed.
“We know some things, but we don't know to what degree,” Bailey said. “We know it is flying in the face of popular knowledge that the bad economy is what caused the crime rate.”
Public Perception and Protection
Bales' study shows that crime continued to drop significantly during the 2000s, even as unemployment rates increased by 144 percent and the state poverty rate climbed by 34 percent.
Public perception of crime, however, does not reflect the reality that people in the U.S. are safer than they have been in decades.
Experts say the influence of the media, including highly publicized crime reports and television shows, skew the public's view.
“I don't think the public yet feels safe,” Bailey said. “They are reading about the heinous crimes in the newspaper, they are hearing them on television, they are watching 'CSI,' and they know there are a lot of bad things going on out there.”
The truth, however, is different.
“The vast majority of Floridians are very safe and are not going to be affected by crime today or in the years to come,” Austin said. “Your chance of being the victim of a crime is very, very small. Florida is very, very safe.”
Bales says that is a message that policy makers should be promoting in a big way.
“People are aware of a lot of important numbers that affect them and their families, but they aren't really aware of crime,” Bales said.
“The fact that we don't advertise this great news is an oversight that in my opinion needs to be corrected, for nothing else than for citizens to feel safer.”
But there is a fine line between feeling safe and becoming cavalier, Bailey cautioned.
“We still want the public to be on guard,” he said.
Casey also stressed the need for continued vigilance.
“It is true that (the crime rate) is down significantly, but this is of little comfort to someone who has been victimized or lost a loved one, which means we can do an even better job in anticipating crime and preventing it before it happens,” Casey said.
“Law enforcement will be able to do this, only as long as we have the right resources to do the job.”
Jennifer Portman is a reporter for The Tallahassee Democrat. Her story was published last weekend in www.tallahassee.com the website of The Democrat.The Bales-Piquero study was supported by a grant from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. Please read the original HERE. Portman welcomes comments from readers.