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The Problem with Ron DeSantis’ Claims About Crime in Florida

7 minute read

Love is a Senior Research Associate with Brookings Metro, where her research focuses on the intersection between place, public safety, and economic opportunity. Her most recent writing centers on the new geography of crime within U.S. cities and how federal resources can be leveraged to address the root causes of gun violence. Hadden Loh is a Fellow with Brookings Metro, where she integrates her interests in commercial real estate, infrastructure, racial justice, and governance. Her most recent writing includes two co-authored chapters in Hyperlocal: Place Governance in a Fragmented World and a series on the future of downtowns

Since announcing his presidential bid, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made being “tough-on-crime” a cornerstone of his campaign. As purported proof of his track-record on public safety, he’s claimed that Florida “leads the nation” in crime reduction and is experiencing 50-year crime lows.

At the same time, he’s criticized “big progressive cities,” like Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland, Or. and blamed their justice reform policies for crime, while arguing that Florida’s pro-law enforcement stance is responsible for its relative safety.

The problem with these claims is that they are not only factually inaccurate, they also show just how little the presidential hopeful knows about crime in his own state—let alone the nation’s. DeSantis’ arguments deserve further investigation because they rely on inaccurate data that don’t (and can’t) paint the full picture of crime in Florida, obscures place-based variations and upticks in certain forms of crime across Florida, and contradicts the evidence on the relationship between criminal justice reform and crime.

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Florida’s crime data are too flawed to claim 50-year lows

DeSantis can’t be sure that Florida has achieved 50-year crime rate lows because the state itself doesn’t know what its crime trends are, due to flawed data.

This is because, in 2021, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) was in the process of shifting from its traditional data collection system—the Summary Reporting System, which reports monthly crime counts and documents only the most serious offense in an incident—to align with new national FBI reporting standards, the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which includes a greater number of crimes and allows for the reporting multiple offenses within one incident. While the NIBRS system will be an important transition in the long-term for more accurate crime reporting nationwide, some state agencies, including FDLE, did not meet the FBI’s 2021 reporting deadline and were excluded from national crime statistics.

In the place of accurate FBI data, DeSantis is basing his claims about Florida’s crime rates on FDLE’s 2021 annual crime report. This report is methodologically flawed since a total of 239 agencies (covering about half the state’s population) reported their crime trends using the old Summary Reporting System methodology. Others submitted with the new NIBRS methodology, others did a mix of both, and some—including Hillsborough County, where Tampa is—didn’t enter data whatsoever, meaning they were excluded from the 2021 statewide crime trends that DeSantis regularly cites.

These methodological clashes in Florida’s crime reporting create gaps in information that make it difficult to definitively claim any statewide crime trends—let alone that the state has reached “50-year-crime rate lows.”

Florida cities lagged behind more “progressive” cities in crime reduction

DeSantis’ “tough-on-crime” rhetoric relies on state-level “total crime” data to argue that Florida outperforms more progressive places (particularly cities) in crime reduction. Even if Florida’s state-level data was accurate, this comparison wouldn’t make sense for two reasons.

First, it compares Florida’s state-level data with cities, while ignoring place-based patterns of crime concentration within Florida itself. Meaning, DeSantis’ claims don’t acknowledge the “neutralizing” effect that state data can have on crime trends, if some Florida cities experienced sharp upticks in crime while others saw declines.

Second, DeSantis’ claims rely on statewide “total crime” rates, which can also be misleading if certain minor crimes (like shoplifting or drug possession) went down across the state, while more serious crimes (like murder or rape) went up.

To help determine whether Florida cities have truly made progress in reducing serious crimes—and to see how they stand up to “more progressive” peers—we analyzed local police department data from the state’s four largest cities’ and compared their crime reduction rates with four other cities (Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, California) that are relatively “progressive” on criminal justice, many of which have shouldered their share of criticisms from DeSantis.

Courtesy of Brookings Institution.

Our analysis finds that place matters when talking about crime trends, and the story DeSantis is telling about the state of Florida versus “big progressive cities” in other states is much more complex than he makes it seem.

Looking at changes in violent crime rates between 2019 (the year DeSantis took office) and 2021 (the most recent year data were available), we found that three of Florida’s largest cities—Jacksonville, Tampa, and Orlando—had significant upticks in violent crime. Tampa led the bunch with a 37% spike, then Jacksonville at 21%, and Orlando at 19%. Miami, on the other hand, saw its violent crime rate decrease by 8%.

Looking at other cities deemed “progressive” on criminal justice—Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, Ca.—all made more progress on reducing violent crime rates than Tampa, Jacksonville, and Orlando.

Read More: DeSantis Moves to Trump’s Right on Criminal Justice

For instance, Richmond— which has embraced public health and community violence intervention approaches to reducing crime—reduced its violent crime rate by 20% during this period (during which violent crimes were spiking nationwide).

And New York City—one of DeSantis’ favorite targets and a city that has, for decades, championed safety through environmental design (such as cleaning up public spaces and train stations)—had the lowest violent crime rate of any in the sample in 2021 at 439 violent crimes per 100,000 people compared to Orlando’s 832 violent crimes per 100,000 people.

Our analysis makes it clear that there is no one “statewide” story that can be told about crime—and that many of Florida’s largest cities are not achieving the violent crime reductions that DeSantis claims.

“Progressive” criminal justice reform policies do not cause crime

DeSantis’ “tough-on-crime” message hinges on blaming progressive criminal justice reforms, like ending cash bail or electing a progressive prosecutor, for rising crime rates.

But the evidence on the relationship between criminal justice reform and crime rates do not support his claims. New York’s 2019 bail reform legislation, for instance, was found to have a negligible effect on crime rates. Progressive prosecution practices in cities like Philadelphia, too, have not led to crime increases. In fact, some cities like Boston and Baltimore, have actually reduced violent crime by stopping the prosecution of lower-level offenses, like nonviolent misdemeanors, which often make it hard for individuals to obtain a job or a loan due to criminal records, and can increase their likelihood of further criminal justice system involvement.

Importantly, the non-Florida cities in our sample have made significant strides in reducing violent crime through the kinds of “progressive” non-punitive approaches that DeSantis would call “soft-on-crime.” In Philadelphia, for instance, efforts to transform and clean vacant lots in high-poverty neighborhoods were associated with a 29% reduction in gun violence. Similar strategies are working in Chicago. And all four have “violence interrupter” programs, which have been associated with a 63% decrease in gun violence in the Bronx, and a 43% reduction in Richmond.

On the other hand, many of the “tough-on-crime” policies that DeSantis proposed in his criminal justice package—including permit-less carry and stronger penalties for drug crimes—are associated with higher violent crime rates and lasting reductions in social mobility for communities of color. So, when DeSantis argues that reducing crime requires punitive approaches over root-cause ones, it may be time to ask him what his tough-on-crime stance has done for Tampa, where violent crime rates are up nearly 40%.

When DeSantis compares “crime-ridden” cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia to his “safe” state of Florida, it is important to remember there is much more context, nuance, and evidence underlying the picture he’s painting. DeSantis’ flawed statements on crime and safety matter—not just for winning campaigns—but for ensuring the safety and well-being of all Florida residents.

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