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Florida crime rate hits a 40-year low

By Tom Flanigan


Tallahassee, FL – Florida's crime rate is at an historic low. Even though that will take some of the population pressure off the state's prisons, Tom Flanigan reports state correctional officers are worried the push to privatize Florida prisons will continue.

Early Tuesday afternoon, dozens of correctional officers from state prisons throughout Florida visited the Capitol. They made a beeline for the fourth floor office of Senate President Mike Haridopolos. They came with more than three thousand signed petitions and they also brought a verbal message.

"A lot of correctional officers you see here have ten-plus years in.and we've made this not only a job, but made it a career. And a lot of us have put aside other career opportunities that we could have taken because this is the path that we've chosen as public servants. Now we've dedicated ourself to this with the understanding that we would have a retirement when we got done and we've gone six years without pay raises, knowing we weren't going to get pay raises knowing this year we weren't going to get pay raises."

That alone, they said, made them worthy of respect. That's why they took offense at remark Senator Haridopolos made a few weeks ago in which he said most people don't believe prison guards are the equivalent of regular police officers. The correctional officers begged to differ.

"We are law enforcement. We walk in there every day. The people who won't walk in there, who are also law enforcement, are your sheriffs; are your city policemen. I am law enforcement and I walk in there and I put my life on the line every day."

Also, state correctional officers have to undergo extensive training and certification. And that forms the basis of their main concern; that turning more prisons over to private companies would be a bad thing for them and everyone else. Retired Florida Department of Corrections Colonel William Muse was among the officers who packed the senate president's outer waiting room.

"What it's going to do, it's going to create loss of jobs within our community, which is going to hurt not only the correctional officer but the community itself. And that's what they've got to understand, that they're not saving money by privatization."
Which is why Muse and the other guards had come, on their own time and dime, to Tallahassee.

"With this governor, it is absolutely a big push with him, so we've got to convince the Senate and the House that this is not what the people want. We do not want privatization."

In the short term at least, Florida may have less need for prisons, whether public or private. That's because, at around the same time the correctional officers were in Haridopolos's outer office, dozens more law officers were downstairs in the Cabinet Room to hear some good news from Governor Rick Scott.

"We are pleased to announce that Florida's crime rate is the lowest our state has had in forty years. Down 6.7% in 2010 over the previous calendar year. In addition the actual number of reported index crimes also declined, down 6.6%."

The crime rate drop was across the board. Murders were down by nearly four percentage points. Aggravated assault dropped by almost nine percentage points. Forcible sex offenses and domestic violence were off by around three percent. Property crimes likewise took a tumble. Larceny was down by more than four percent. Burglaries were off by seven. Robberies fell by almost sixteen and motor vehicle thefts down by a whopping eighteen percent. The big question, of course, is what has happened in Florida to promote a consistent drop in crime rates over the past several years? Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Jerry Bailey said he didn't have a scientific analysis, but he did have a few ideas.

"This flies in the face of all those that are saying that a sinking economy would probably have an across-the-board increase in the crime rate. But between what we're doing in technology and forensics and the training and, I guess, the refocusing on the part of city and county law enforcement, it's working."

Of course, the most laws most frequently broken in Florida, and everywhere else, are traffic laws. Red light running especially has been a big problem. So many communities have installed intersection cameras to catch violators. That has been strongly opposed by some lawmakers. One key committee voted last month to make the cameras illegal, but the bill may not make it to the floors of the House and Senate. Tampa Airport Police Chief Paul Sireci says law agencies like the cameras.

"We are in support of the red light cameras. We think that it is an important public safety tool. There are certainly statistics that have proven that they make intersections safer and that there are less infractions that take place. Particularly in this time when we have limited resources to put on the street, that's the type of technology that assists us in keeping our communities safe."

Meanwhile, four floors above, Florida correctional officers continued the argument that prisons operated and staffed by the state were also needed to keep communities safe.