GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Despite double-digit percentage decreases in violent and property crime both across the U.S. and in Clay County – most Americans believe crime has risen during the last …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Despite double-digit percentage decreases in violent and property crime both across the U.S. and in Clay County – most Americans believe crime has risen during the last decade.
A November 2016 poll of 3,788 adults by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center found that 78 percent of Americans who voted for Donald Trump and 37 percent of those who voted for Hilary Clinton during the 2016 Presidential election believed that crime trended upward over the last 10 years.
While crime overall has trended down over the last 15 years, public perception that crime has risen has trended the opposite direction, according to the Gallup Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2015, roughly 70 percent of Americans believed crime had risen from the prior year.
Why, though, has public perception on crime veered so far from reality?
One theory remains that when crime spikes, as it did during the housing market crash of 2008, the belief that crime is rampant never goes away.
In 2008, after the housing market crash, arrests and bookings in Clay County rose to more than 10,000, a decade high. The same year, Jacksonville regained its dubious title as the murder capital of Florida.
It wouldn’t be until three years after the housing market crash that crime levels returned to pre-recession levels, according to county documents.
When the market crashes, domestic violence rises along with a spike in property crimes.
“If a couple is experiencing financial hardship, domestic violence is about three times more likely in that relationship, so it does increase,” said Peggy Payne chief executive officer of Quigley House, the local domestic violence shelter. “They always say most of the couples will argue about money issues before they argue about pretty much anything else … victims will tell you when money gets tight, whoever the abuser is their temper gets shorter and shorter.”
According to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, domestic violence in Clay County rose 81 percent between 2006 and 2008 – a period when more than 4,000 families lost their homes to foreclosure, according to documents obtained from the Clay County Clerk of the Court.
In 2008, Quigley House sheltered 165 individuals – a lower number than has been recorded in the following years. Meanwhile, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office reported 10,637 arrests in 2008, compared to 6,347 in 2015. In the same year, 2008, CCSO reported 8,159 bookings and, in 2015, it reported 5,197 bookings.
Payne explained the discrepancy. “Many people didn’t need our services,” she said, “they didn’t need domestic violence shelters – they needed homeless shelters.”
Because Clay County lacks a central homeless shelter, she said, many left the county to get support.
Today, total domestic violence disputes in Clay County are still above pre-recession levels, but declined by a large margin last year.
“There is a domestic violence problem in the county that I’m uncomfortable with,” said Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels, noting that most violent crime in the county is committed, not by strangers, but by those with prior relationships.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do to mitigate domestic violence because you’re not in the house with the individuals but you can bring attention and awareness to the fact that there is an issue.”
The key to understanding local and national crime trends is to keep it in perspective, according to Shelley Grant, a criminologist and associate professor of Sociology at Jacksonville University.
“Even when we saw that upturn and Jacksonville was being called the murder capital of Florida, murders were still far less than they were in the late 80s and early 90s,” Grant said.
In 2006, banks foreclosed on 726 homes in Clay County. By 2009, that number had nearly tripled.
Despite a small uptick in violent crimes in Clay County last year, the violent crime rate in the county today sits well below what it was even pre-recession. The same is true for property crime.
With crimes at impressive lows, why, then, do people still feel crime is rampant?
According to Grant, one possible reason involves what’s called cultivation theory. The theory, developed by Hungarian-born communications professor George Gerbner, says the longer one consumes violent media and entertainment, the easier it is to believe that reality lines up with what is portrayed in a television show and on the news.
“Basically, the result of the theory is that … it causes people to think that we live in a mean world,” Grant said. “So, the more violent TV you watch…the more you believe we live in a mean world. That in and of itself is not good, but what happens if you believe you live in a mean world?”
She said when people believe they live in a mean world, it influences social policy, such as whether drug abuse should be a social health problem or a criminal justice problem.
Today, she said the latter is the most predominant form of dealing with addiction.
On a micro-level, Gerbner’s theory might only remind a person to lock their door, but on the national stage, the theory has wide-ranging implications.
Grant said while rehabilitation has been proven to be more effective than incarceration at lower recidivism rates, there are few politicians willing to run on a platform any different than a ‘tough on crime’ approach for fear of losing an election.
The result reinforces the causes of the belief in a way, Grant said, resulting in a cycle that may also explain why many believe crime is rampant.
Academics have debated Gerbner’s theory since the 70s. Some studies have diminished his theory, while others still have vindicated it.
Policy has not yet caught up with crime trends.
Minimum mandatory sentences and other ‘squash and conquer’ prosecution methods showed progressive movement in the past Florida legislative session. Senate Bill 290, a bill that would have eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, garnered a fair amount of attention from both liberal and conservative legislators.
The bill ultimately died from lack of support, however.
In May, the Florida Legislature passed new mandatory minimum requirements for possession of more than four grams of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid linked to 1,000s of overdose deaths across the country.
The new law imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of three years for possession of four grams of fentanyl, 15 years for at least 14 grams and at least 25 years for possession of at least 28 grams.
Many criminal justice reform advocates oppose mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, citing they do little to curb the overall problems of drug trafficking in the country, inundate prisons with low-level offenders on the taxpayer dime and rob judges of their ability to tailor sentences appropriately.
Grant said policy has stagnated since the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80s. To end what she sees as a cycle, Grant said, there has to be education on crime realities.
“My students sort of have this epiphany when they come into my class they say, ‘oh, I thought things were so much worse,” Grant said. “I tell them, ‘go out and tell them, talk to people about how the crime rate is down and the fact that many rehabilitation strategies are effective. That actually the more punitive we are, the more likely we are to be recidivists.”