Slayings Down in Florida in 2005; Bush Notes Jacksonville's Homicide Rate, but Some Say the Statistics Are Misleading

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Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE -- Jacksonville's homicide binge of 2006 found the spotlight yet again Tuesday with the release of statewide crime statistics that showed murders declined in Florida last year, and the state's overall crime rate stands at its lowest in decades.

Gov. Jeb Bush touted the statistics at a Tallahassee news conference, crediting his administration's emphasis on tougher sentencing laws and greater spending on public safety and prisons. Total offenses fell 1.5 percent in 2005, from 850,490 in 2004 to 838,063, even as the state's population grew by 2.3 percent to nearly 18 million people. The rate of violent crime also dropped slightly from year-to-year, by 0.6 of a percent, and crime volume -- the actual number of reported crimes -- dropped by 1.5 percent to its lowest point in 20 years.

Murders dropped 7 percent in 2005, from 946 in 2004 to 881, which included a decline in Jacksonville from 104 to 91. But Duval's murder rate has led all Florida counties for the past six years, and this year there have been 86 homicides as of Tuesday afternoon.

Bush acknowledged the problem and offered some explanations: Jacksonville's larger land mass and status as a county, for example. The governor said he is watching the problem closely and has spoken with community leaders to offer help and support.

"They've not asked for anything beyond the traditional support of state law enforcement, but it's definitely on the minds of a lot of people," he said. "If we can provide some support, the mayor knows how to get me. We talk on a regular basis on a wide range of issues."

Bush said he also is concerned about Orlando, where the area's more than 30 homicides this year could affect tourism, the state's largest industry. He endorsed the idea of special task forces -- such as the Jacksonville Community Council Inc. study that began in March -- to examine the hows and whys behind the epidemic.

Attorney General Charlie Crist agreed with Bush that statistics on Jacksonville can appear misleading because of the community's size. But he also renewed his call for a $56 million Anti-Murder Act, a package of tougher sentencing and probation rules that failed to pass the state Senate this year. A candidate for governor, Crist has pledged not to sign any other legislation, if elected, until the act passes.

"It's too important to the people of Florida," Crist said. "Obviously it would resonate and I think it does resonate with the people of Jacksonville and Orlando because of what these statistics are showing."

State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville said Bush has expressed an active interest in the city's epidemic and is correct that one likely reason for the statistical spike in slayings this year is because of Jacksonville's status as a county. …