Despite fears that recently released prison inmates are endangering the public, a new study indicates that more freed prisoners than ever are managing to stay out of trouble.
Some 500 recently released felons have scared tourists, outraged the public and even caused one Florida sheriff to declare the state unsafe.
But only three of the 440 inmates released just before Thanksgiving have been arrested for new offenses since their release, less than 1 percent of the total, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement study.
In 1993, about 5 percent of prisoners committed a new crime within three months of release.
"We're not having a run on these guys back to prison," said Mandy Wettstein, a spokeswoman for the department. "In that sense, it seems okay, but we do have some arrests and returns."
What's more, a recently completed study by the Department of Corrections shows that the percentage of prisoners who commit a new crime within two years of release has declined dramatically since 1988. Over a six-year period ending in 1994, the figure dropped from nearly 40 percent to less than 20 percent.
The declining numbers come at a time when lawmakers are rushing to soothe voter anger and tourist fear over the recently released prisoners, many of them violent, who were freed as the result of two separate court decisions.
In the last week, lawmakers have suggested tracking released felons by satellite and increasing the penalties for prisoners who commit violent crimes within five years of their release. The response has been so rapid that nobody knows how much the sweeping new initiatives would cost.
Politicians and law enforcement experts were divided on reasons for the overall drop in repeat offenders. Reasons also varied for the slower return of the small group of felons released in November and whether the figures were even statistically significant.
Some suggested that the November felons, released to a glare of publicity and tracked by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, were behaving better under tighter scrutiny.
But others noted that violent felons generally have lower rates of return to prison since their crimes are often spur-of-the-moment, rather than the repeated acts committed by burglars.
"Many violent offenses are one-time happenings," said Edwin Megargee, a Florida State University psychology professor who specializes in criminal issues.
Rep. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, noted that recent changes to sentencing guidelines have reduced the number of crimes that result in prison time. As a result, the prisoners could still be committing crimes, but not getting prison time.
"What guidelines have done is restricted the people going into the prisons," said Crist, who is head of the House Justice Council.
Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, who has co-sponsored a bill for stricter supervision of the released felons, suggested that recent laws to crack down on criminals and increase sentences have had an impact.
"It's encouraging news," said Sen. Crist. "The real sadness is that we shouldn't have to be dealing with one additional arrest out there."
The three prisoners re-arrested in November are Freddie Grant, 36, arrested in Alachua County and charged with aggravated stalking; Eddie Kitchen, 24, arrested in Clewiston and charged with aggravated assault; and Scott White, 36, arrested in Volusia County and convicted of attempted purchase of crack cocaine.
Six of the November felons also have arrest warrants for violating conditions of their probation.
Two others have been served with domestic violence injunctions.