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  1. Florida Politics

PolitiFact Florida: Fact-checking the crime crossfire in the Crist-Jolly debate

Published Sep. 21, 2016

Incumbent U.S. Rep. David Jolly sparked a memorable moment during Monday's 13th Congressional District debate, getting a rise out of Democratic challenger Charlie Crist by pointing out his fondness for chain gangs during his days as a Republican state senator.

As the audience at the Palladium listened in silence, Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, painted a vivid picture of Crist traveling to Alabama in 1995 with Florida's first African-American corrections secretary to inspect a chain gang in operation.

"You stood there, over three African-American prisoners in chains, on their knees, on the side of the road. Saying that it was a great sight. Saying we needed to bring it to Florida," Jolly said. "And you did this — whether you know or not — on the eve of Juneteenth, the day the African-American community celebrates the end of slavery."

Former Gov. Crist said "it was beneath" Jolly to suggest it had something to do with race, and to insinuate as much was "appalling. The state needed to be tough on criminals, Crist said, given how bad violent crime was in Florida at the time.

"In the mid 1990s, in our state, we were No. 1 in violent crime in America," Crist said. "The only concern I had was for the citizens of Florida, who were subjected to a violent crime every three minutes and 45 seconds."

PolitiFact Florida decided to put both sides on the Truth-O-Meter.

Chain Gang Charlie

We went digging through the archives to find the image to which Jolly referred. We found he missed the mark on the finer points of the visit.

Crist did champion the return of chain gangs in Florida, first sponsoring a bill bringing back the practice, then getting language inserted into an omnibus corrections bill in May 1995.

His amendment read, "The Department of Corrections shall implement a plan by Dec. 1, 1995, to require that selected inmates perform labor wearing leg irons in chain gang work groups."

After the law passed, Crist went to Alabama with state Corrections Secretary Harry Singletary to observe chain gangs in action on June 8. That's more than a week before Juneteenth, the anniversary of the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas.

The Associated Press took a photo of the two men watching at least four prisoners in Decatur, Ala., on their knees being chained together for a work detail. It's difficult to determine the races of the inmates in the 21-year-old, black and white photograph, but it was clear from coverage that the vast majority of inmates in the work program were African-American.

Crist didn't say it was "a great sight" — that was from a newspaper article.

He actually said, "I see justice. I see justice being done."

He also expressed his approval of the practice and wanted to bring the same style of chain gangs to Florida. In an Associated Press story that accompanied the photo, Crist said, "I'm very impressed by what I've seen so far."

Singletary, meanwhile, had agreed to enforce the law, but he was cool to the idea of chaining prisoners together. He said during the trip that he favored chaining a prisoner's ankles, but not linking a group of people, as Crist and other lawmakers had envisioned.

Eventually, the state prison system began the program in December 1995 using only leg irons, calling the groups of inmates "restricted labor squads" instead of chain gangs.

Jolly's statement is partially accurate, but flubs some of the details. We rated it Half True.

Crime crisis

Crist's response — that crime was out of control in Florida at the time — is backed up by statistics.

Data from the Disaster Center showed from 1991 to 1997, Florida was ranked No. 1 for the rate of violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery and assault) for every 100,000 people.

In 1998, Florida was ranked No. 2, with New Mexico earning the top spot. The overall number of violent crimes decreased in Florida throughout the 1990s, mirroring a national trend.

As for Crist's other statistic, it was actually happening more often than he said for most of the decade.

The year 1993 marked Crist's first year in the Florida Senate and a record-high amount of violent crimes (161,789). According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data, a violent crime happened every three minutes and 14 seconds.

The figure stretched to three minutes and 19 seconds in 1994, and then to three minutes and 28 seconds in 1995. In 1998, violent crimes were occurring every three minutes and 45 seconds — what Crist said. (Violent crimes happened every five minutes and 37 seconds in 2015.)

We rated Crist's statement True.

Edited for print. Read the full rulings at PolitiFact.com/florida.