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Ron DeSantis claims he’s tough on crime ahead of 2024. Do his policies work?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t officially running for president yet. But over the past few months, he has repeatedly accused Democrats of being soft on crime while misleadingly claiming that crime levels are at a 50-year low in his own state.

“If you’re engaged in mob violence in Florida, you ain’t going to be treated like they do in Portland,” DeSantis said in a February speech to a police union outside Chicago. “In Florida, if you’re doing that, you’re not getting a slap on the wrist; you’re getting the inside of a jail cell.”

His new book, The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival, echoes that rhetoric. He calls Black Lives Matter “an ideological movement based on false premises about law enforcement.” He brags about cutting the movement to defund the police in Florida “off at the knees” by barring local governments from reallocating police funding. And he rails against progressive prosecutors for “nullify[ing] laws they don’t like based on their personal conception of ‘social justice.’”

In contrast, he touted Florida as “proud to stand for law and order” in his State of the State address in early March. “We are tough on crime, and we support the men and women of law enforcement,” he said.

But there’s a problem with DeSantis’s attacks on Democrats’ policies on crime: It’s not clear that crime is lower in Florida than in some of the cities he has criticized. In some Florida cities, the data shows murder rates are significantly higher than in blue cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Experts say there’s also no evidence to support that some of DeSantis’s signature public safety policies, including doubling down on cash bail, are effective in reducing crime, and other DeSantis crime policies involve considerable trade-offs and uncertainties.

As he preps a potential 2024 presidential run, DeSantis has also eliminated permit requirements to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, where mass shootings have become more common than in any other state except California and gun deaths are on the rise. The governor signed the law last week, following a recent mass shooting at a school in Tennessee and amid a spate of gun violence in Florida. Given that data suggests spikes in violent crime in recent years were driven by gun violence, DeSantis’s efforts to make guns more easily accessible should be seen as an affront to public safety.

DeSantis’s claims about public safety in his state are based on a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that the state’s total crime fell more than 8 percent to a 50-year low in 2021, compared to an estimated 1 percent nationally. However, neither of those figures is reliable, in part because of a shift in how the data was reported that year.

Still, tapping into voters’ fears about crime might be an effective campaign strategy, especially in a Republican primary. Polling suggested that a majority of Americans were worried about crime ahead of the midterms, and there’s evidence that has remained true in at least some parts of the country in the months since. For instance, roughly two-thirds of Wisconsin voters approved two separate ballot measures earlier this month imposing new limitations on judges considering whether to release someone on cash bail that were endorsed by police unions as a means of protecting public safety.

“Governor DeSantis is smart to focus on crime; it’s an issue that immediately separates the commonsensical from the woke,” said William F. B. O’Reilly, a GOP strategist based in New York. “In advocating tougher criminal justice stands, he’s communicating a set of values — personal responsibility leaps to mind — that millions of Americans share. It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m no crazy ideologue; I live in the real world, just like you do.’”

The problem, at least for DeSantis, is what the data says about the real crime rates in Florida.

Is crime actually falling in Florida?

DeSantis has talked up Florida’s crime data as evidence that his criminal justice strategy is working, in contrast to that of blue states. These kinds of attacks from the right are nothing new, and they played a major role in the midterms. Republicans have long sought to establish themselves as the party of law and order: President George H.W. Bush ran the infamous, racist 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad — invoking the case of a Black man who raped a white woman and stabbed her boyfriend after he was released as part of a furlough program — with the aim of playing to white racial anxiety.

But there are some glaring issues with Florida’s crime data that make DeSantis’s claims dubious — and practically impossible to fact-check.

We don’t have official, national FBI crime data for 2022 yet, and assessing crime data for 2021 is difficult because, that year, the FBI transitioned to a new national system of reporting crime data. Nearly 40 percent of law enforcement agencies around the country failed to submit data under the new system, which has more detailed reporting requirements. In Florida, only two law enforcement agencies out of the more than 700 in the state submitted data. Another 239 agencies, covering a bit over half of the state’s population, submitted data under the old reporting requirements.

In lieu of comprehensive, uniform crime data, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released a report in December with statewide crime estimates based on the data from those 239 agencies. The department derived those estimates in the same way the FBI did nationally in 2021, a methodology that had some serious blind spots, and then compared those results to its complete data from 2020.

The Florida report said that “total crime volume” in the state fell more than 8 percent in 2021 to a 50-year low, and that violent crime and property crime dropped by over 4 percent and nearly 11 percent, respectively.

But Ames Grawert, who leads quantitative and policy research on trends in crime for the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said the Florida report was essentially comparing apples to oranges. Officials should instead have at least created estimates for 2020 using the same methodology to maintain more consistency in their model. And there were still clear holes in Florida’s figures: For instance, the report didn’t provide 2021 estimates for Hillsborough, the fourth-largest county in the state.

When asked about those gaps, DeSantis’s office did not comment and instead referred Vox to Gretl Plessinger, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who defended its methodology in the report as “industry best practice.”

When DeSantis talks about how crime levels in Florida are at 50-year lows, he’s referring to total crime — including a range of offenses from possession of illegal drugs to shoplifting to murder. The problem with looking at total crime is that it includes nonviolent crime. That’s an issue because violent crime tends to be the root of voters’ concerns about public safety.

For Grawert, all of that makes it difficult to draw any kind of sweeping conclusions about crime in Florida akin to what DeSantis has claimed.

“It really complicates the ability to say that crime is at an all-time low, especially if you were focusing on violent crime.”

Nevertheless, DeSantis has used those estimates to make the case that Florida has seen crime decrease to 50-year lows because it didn’t enact policies like defunding the police and bail reform. Those claims don’t square with city-level data. The research firm AH Datalytics tracked homicides in four Florida cities for which data was available — Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, and Tampa — and the number of murders per 100,000 people in 2021 was higher than it was for most of the 2010s, much less 50 years ago.

“We’ve got playgrounds with shell casings around them,” Jacksonville City Council member Al Ferraro, a Republican running for mayor, said in a recent debate.

And the data suggests that the situation is getting worse: Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa had higher murder rates in 2021 than cities in blue states including New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston, according to AH Datalytics’s data. And between 2021 and 2022, homicides rose by at least 9 percent in those Florida cities.

But by comparison, homicides declined by at least 9 percent in three of four New York cities tracked by AH Datalytics — New York, Rochester, and Syracuse — and rose by less than 2 percent in Buffalo. The murder rates for all of those cities were below historical highs in those years, with the exception of Rochester, which saw its deadliest year on record in 2021.

It’s also relevant to look specifically at firearm deaths in Florida given DeSantis’s pursuit of permitless carry and that Florida has been a site of more mass shootings than any state except California in 2023 as of April 5, leaving 19 dead and another 57 injured, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. That includes an apparent murder-suicide in March, in which five people were found dead from gunshot wounds inside a Miami Lakes home. The number of mass shootings in Florida and associated deaths and injuries have all increased between 2019, when DeSantis took office as governor, and 2022.

Florida ranks a bit above the national average in firearms deaths overall per 100,000 people, and significantly above New York and some of the jurisdictions that DeSantis is impugning. The number of gun-related deaths in the state increased from 12.7 to 13.7 per 100,000 during DeSantis’s first year in office, up from 11.5 per 100,000 in 2014, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s hard to say exactly why that might be, but studies have found a link between gun ownership and gun deaths, and Florida has the third-highest number of registered guns of any state.

To the extent that Republicans like DeSantis are trying to frame rising crime as a blue city or blue state problem, that’s also just not true. Between 2019 and 2020, murders spiked by more than 30 percent in the biggest cities and by 20 percent in the suburbs, with similar rates in rural areas too. Murders rose roughly equally in cities with Republican leadership and with Democratic leadership, and some red state cities had the nation’s highest murder rates.

That’s consistent with research: Jeff Asher, co-founder of AH Datalytics, looked at changes in crime rates across cities in 2020 based on political alignment and found no meaningful difference. A more recent analysis out of the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank, conceded that any attempts to identify a red versus blue shift in crime rates depending on city or state leadership can’t really go beyond correlation.

“The data is not there to prove any causal nexus. There’s really no evidence that you can blame crime trends on blue cities or red cities. It’s an American problem. It’s not a political problem,” Grawert said.

Are the “tough-on-crime” policies DeSantis is pursuing in Florida effective?

DeSantis has made combating crime a key pillar of his agenda as Florida governor, and that has continued this legislative session as he assembles what could be a pitch for the presidency.

In January, he unveiled a criminal justice package that would, among other provisions, put more law enforcement officers on the streets. He wants to allocate $5 million for the state and local law enforcement strike forces he developed last year targeting human trafficking and illegal weapons. That builds on his move last year to secure $5,000 bonuses for out-of-state law enforcement officers who choose to relocate to Florida. On March 3, he announced that 1,400 officers had received the bonuses to date, bringing the total dollars spent on the program to over $7 million. (As national Democrats have noted, that money came from Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed in 2021.)

The package also includes measures strengthening cash bail just as states including New York and Illinois are ending, or have already ended, the practice. He’s proposing to limit who can be released on bail prior to their first court appearance and giving judges more freedom to decide whether they should be released.

Under the new law he signed earlier this week, DeSantis also made Florida the 26th state to adopt permitless carry. The law, which goes into effect July 1, allows gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without a permit or without undergoing training under some restrictions. People barred from owning firearms, including those with a felony conviction, still can’t legally carry a gun, nor can anyone at certain sensitive locations, including courthouses and polling locations. Previously, gun owners applying for a permit to carry a concealed weapon were required to undergo a background check, fingerprinting, training, and to demonstrate competency by firing a gun in front of an instructor.

While DeSantis has invoked all of those policies in selling himself as tough on crime, they have been shown to either be ineffective or involve significant caveats and trade-offs.

Putting more officers on the street, as DeSantis has tried to do, can reduce homicides and other serious crimes by increasing deterrence. The public safety effect of having more police officers in an area is twice as large for Black victims compared to white victims, according to a 2022 paper. People are less likely to commit crimes if there is an officer in sight, and more officers can also help to increase the rate at which crimes are solved, as reviews of the literature have echoed.

Still, putting more officers on the street isn’t a costless measure. Aside from broader concerns about systemic racism in policing and use of excessive force, the paper notes that the larger the police force, the more arrests for low-level offenses. Black Americans who are more likely to be stopped, searched, taken into custody, and charged, and who make up at least 17 percent of Florida’s population, are disproportionately likely to be affected. More arrests for low-level offenses might decrease the rate at which crimes are solved overall, given that such clearance rates for low-level offenses tend to be lower than for violent offenses.

And Donna Deegan, a Democratic mayoral candidate in Jacksonville, Florida, said that while cities like hers need more officers on the streets, that’s not enough to bring down violent crime alone.

“You can’t take a singular approach of just more police officers,” she said. “We need to train them better. And then we need to build other services around that if we want to reduce violent crime. We don’t deal very effectively with issues like poverty, mental health, food deserts, and literacy — all those things that we know contribute to violent crime and to crime in general.”

On bail reform, however, there’s no evidence to support DeSantis’s approach. Cash bail does not deter pretrial crimes nor impact whether defendants appear in court, and conversely, reducing reliance on cash bail does not increase pretrial misconduct, a 2022 paper​​ found. The researchers looked at data from Philadelphia, which ended cash bail in 2018 for a swath of low-level or nonviolent offenses, amounting to almost two-thirds of all cases filed in the city.

The same has been true in Harris County, Texas, which eliminated cash bail in 2017 for almost everyone charged with misdemeanors. And another paper by Alex Albright, now of the Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, similarly found that an automatic release program in Kentucky had an “indistinguishable from zero” effect on pretrial rearrest.

Cash bail isn’t just ineffective at preventing crime, it can also have an adverse long-term impact on defendants. Those unable to pay bail or who are held without bail are more likely to be convicted (mostly because they are more likely to plead guilty) and be unemployed upon release, researchers found in a 2018 paper.

All of that makes cash bail a “relatively unappealing policy choice,” said Anna Harvey, a politics professor and director of the Public Safety Lab at New York University.

Relaxing permitting requirements to carry a gun, on the other hand, has been linked to higher rates of violent crime. The research on the subject has evolved over the last few decades, but the Rand Corporation conducted a literature review earlier this year and found “supportive evidence that shall-issue concealed-carry laws” — under which authorities are obligated to grant a concealed weapon permit if the applicant meets basic requirements — “may increase total and firearm homicides.”

That’s based on the results of at least three studies using at least two independent data sets, including a 2019 study by researchers at Stanford and Columbia that found that shall-issue laws were associated with 13 to 15 percent higher aggregate violent crime rates a decade after implementation.

The review was inconclusive about the effects of permitless carry laws specifically, due to a dearth of high-quality research. But the research showing the dangers of slightly more stringent shall-issue laws should give any lawmaker pause about seeing permitless carry as a public safety solution.

“I just don’t think it’s responsible policy,” said Democratic State Rep. Christine Hunschofsky of Parkland, Florida. “There has been no data anywhere showing that removing the permit requirement for concealed carry makes communities safer. It doesn’t make sense to me how that could be put in what’s being called a public safety bill.”

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