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Politicians still love to fight crime

This is the third in a series exploring issues that you, the voters of Florida, have told us are your priorities in the 1994 governor's race.

What is Florida's crime problem?

It's not as simple as you might think.

The current campaign season might have you believing that crime is surging.

"Crime is the No. 1 problem in Florida," Republican gubernatorial challenger Jeb Bush writes in his campaign literature. "This has been the case for years, and the situation is getting worse with each passing day."

In fact, the state's crime rate dropped last year to its lowest point since 1985.

The campaign talk also might convince you that Florida needs a lot of new prisons to make inmates serve more time. Bush wants to build 18,943 more prison beds to keep prisoners in for 85 percent of their sentences.

In fact, under Gov. Lawton Chiles, a man not known for being enamored of prison-building, Florida already is deep into one of the largest expansions in the history of the state corrections system. And Florida inmates already are going to be serving more time. Prison officials say they soon will be serving 75 percent of their sentences _ up from 43 percent last year and more than double the national average of 35 percent.

These facts sketch a central irony of this year's gubernatorial campaign: Even as the state's crime rate drops slightly and its prison system gets far tougher, the crime issue has proven to be fertile ground for politicians.

"It's kind of amazing that we've finally got things back on track and that's what we're getting hammered on," said John Fuller, public safety policy coordinator in the governor's office, who has served under both Chiles and his predecessor, Bob Martinez.

The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. Due to the time lag involved, the impact of the current prison expansion won't be fully felt for at least a year.

"The system is now beginning to work," said state Sen. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, former chairman of the Senate judiciary committee. "Now try to convince the average guy in the street of that and you can't. Because all he does is watch the TV news at night and see that random violence is going up. And it is."

Crime has been such a problem for so long in Florida that the issue resonates with voters like no other.

"My own home has been robbed," Bush wrote in his campaign handouts. "I thank God no one was at home."

Words like those connect, but how well do they describe Florida's crime problem?

To be sure, the state still leads the nation's crime rate _ by a whopping 18 percent over second-place Texas. Why this is so is not so easy to explain. Some think the state's large population of transients and illegal immigrants inflates the rate; others think that underfunded state education and social services systems allow crime to breed and grow; still others blame the weather, or the demographic mix: Florida leads the nation in elderly people, who are more apt to report crime, and reported crime is what determines a state's crime rate.

Whatever the reason, Florida has been stained with crime. The state continues to lead the nation in violent crime. Auto thefts rose in Florida last year by 8.6 percent to a record 114,632. Firearm crimes jumped 4.4 percent.

But most other crimes dropped. Burglaries and robberies are down nearly 3 percent. Murders hit a 14-year low. Recent figures show violent crime down 1.8 percent.

Yet, crime, or rather the fear of crime, is fueling political fires throughout the state.

"I don't think I've ever seen an election where virtually every candidate, from the school board on up to the governor, is pontificating on the issue of crime," said professor Ted Chiricos, a criminologist at Florida State University. "I find it, as a criminologist, very cynical, if not disingenuous. There's nothing happening that would justify the extreme outcry of what I would call a moral panic."

The professor said the media and the public have simply overreacted to a few high-profile crimes. "What happened was in the summer of 1993 there was a series of very atypical victimizations."

These included the murders of two German tourists in Miami and the killing of a British tourist in Monticello.

Others believe these horrifying acts simply crystallized the free-floating fear and rage of crime-weary Floridians.

"I understand that the overall numbers are down, but that doesn't lead to the conclusion that people are in a panic about nothing," said Glen Holley, an analyst with the Bureau of Planning, Research and Statistics at the state Department of Corrections. "There is some basis in numbers for papers to be reporting more incidents involving juveniles committing crimes with guns and people being concerned about it."

And not every part of the state is benefiting from less crime. Dade County and Miami are so saturated with crime they appear to belong to an entirely different state; Dade's 1993 crime rate of 13.26 is more than 40 percent higher than the rate for the rest of the state.

But even without Dade, Florida would lead the nation in its crime rate. At the state level, the story of crime in Florida is a twisting, misunderstood tale that threads through the drug war of the 1980s, detours into arcane issues of prison overcrowding and sentencing guidelines and emerges amid a public groundswell of fear over violent crime in the 1990s.

Large-scale changes

The state's current crime situation had its roots in the mid-1980s. Before then, relatively few people went to prison in Florida for drug crimes. But as cocaine and marijuana swamped the Florida peninsula, a plethora of tough new drug laws changed everything. In 1984, 1,659 people entered prison on drug convictions, about 13 percent of the total prison admissions. In 1989, 15,308 entered prison on drug convictions, more than a third of all prison admissions and only 530 fewer than all inmates sent to prison in 1985.

Prison construction did not keep pace with this avalanche. From 1984 to 1987, the state provided money for only 3,000 new prison beds. The result was inevitable: To make room for the inmates streaming in, inmates already serving time had to be released in droves.

"In the 1980s, the Legislature, in an almost comic effort to get tough on crime, passed all these tough drug laws knowing full well any time they passed one of these statutes they were reducing the amount of time somebody else would serve," Wexler said. "The sentences got longer, and the time served was reduced. That was the fallacy of the program."

The overcrowding required the granting of "basic gain time" _ inmates automatically got one-third of their sentences lopped off when they walked in the door. On top of that, many inmates received the gift of unearned "early release" _ they were simply sent home when the prisons got too full.

By the early 1990s, inmates were serving an average of only 31 percent of their sentences. In many cases, it was significantly less.

The sight of violent criminals serving mere fractions of their time brought a storm of criticism. National media organizations like CBS' 60 Minutes focused on Florida's "revolving door" prisons.

Meanwhile, even as these outrages were being reported throughout the nation, the trends were changing. Between 1987 and 1991, the Legislature funded 21,000 new prison beds.

And beginning in 1989, judges, prosecutors and police, realizing that the crush of drug cases was straining the system, began sending fewer people to prison for drug crimes. Prison admissions for drugs dropped to 8,722 last year, nearly 7,000 less than the drug war peak in 1989.

The jump in prison beds and the drop in admissions relieved some pressure on the prison system. Prisoners gradually began to serve more time.

But such large-scale changes show results only over time. The lag did little to immediately soothe a public that had grown increasingly fearful and outraged about violent career criminals who had benefited from years of early releases and short prison stays.

In the 1993 legislative session, lawmakers responded to the wave of publicity about the Florida tourist murders by funding 6,951 more prison beds.

Last year, they funded an additional 17,033.

In all, Florida's Legislature has shelled out $386-million in the past two years to build more than 23,000 new prison beds _ the equivalent of constructing a prison system from scratch larger than those of 32 states. When all the funded beds are built, Florida's prisons will hold more than 77,000 prisoners _ only Texas with 145,000 and California with 140,000 will be bigger.

"Florida currently has either the largest or second-largest prison-building program in the history of mankind," Wexler said.

The legislators last year also tightened the sentencing guidelines that determine who is sent to prison in the first place. The changes in the guidelines make it harder to send certain felons to prison, but those that do go will spend more time there.

The full impact of the new prison beds and new guidelines won't be seen for a year or two, but prison officials say it will be dramatic.

"There's a major change that's about to occur based on things that have already been done," said Holley, the prison analyst. "For people coming into prison starting this calendar year, they're going to do 75 percent of their sentence. It's not going to show up in the numbers yet, because these people are still serving their prison sentences."

Basic gain time has been eliminated. Prison officials think they will stop all unearned early releases within a year.

That's the good news. The bad news is that building prison beds is one thing. Paying to operate them is quite another.

"It's smart to lock bad people up as long as you can afford to hold them," Holley said. "The question is, how long can you afford to hold them? The bills are going to come due next year and the next year for the operating costs and the legislators are going to have to step up to the plate."

The cost of operating all the prison beds that will be constructed is projected at $331-million a year. That amounts to increasing the corrections operating budget by more than 25 percent a year.

Florida's latest crime problem may be paying for the anti-crime program it has already approved.

This kind of number-crunching is what makes prison professionals wince when they hear Jeb Bush call for inmates to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences. It sounds good, because that's what inmates sent to federal prison serve. But federal resources are vast.

Requiring Florida inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences would cost $300-million a year more in operating costs alone. In other words, the corrections department's operating budget would have to double in three years.

Bush thinks he can do this without raising taxes or cutting into education money. He thinks that belt-tightening and increases in general revenue will help pay for the expansion, and privatizing part of Florida's prison system will cut the cost.

"When politicians are asked why Florida has not built the prisons it needs to make our streets safe, one of the answers always given is that we cannot afford to build our way out of the prison crisis because of the high cost of so-called entitlement programs," Bush wrote in "Closing the Public Safety Gap," his pamphlet on crime.

"I believe it's time public safety became an entitlement in this state."

One thing is sure. Locking people up for longer periods is going to be expensive.

"Something that has to be understood is that all these beds that we paid to build, we have to pay to run them," Holley said. "It's a lot easier to get the money to build the prisons than it is to get the money to run them."

Jeff Leen is a staff writer for the Miami Herald.

Projected prison costs

Projected costs if inmates serve 85% of their sentences.

Construction Operating

Year costs costs Total

1995-96 $280,046,000 $211,407,650 $491,453,650

1996-97 $280,046,000 $429,759,176 $709,805,176

1997-98 $140,023,000 $631,706,376 $771,729,376

Projected costs if inmates serve 100% of their sentence.

Construction Operating

Year costs costs Total

1995-96 $280,046,000 $211,407,650 $491,453,650

1996-97 $280,046,000 $429,759,176 $709,805,176

1997-98 $280,046,000 $631,706,376 $911,752,376

SOURCE: Department of Corrections