On Feb. 19, the front page of The Gainesville Sun asked the question: Why is the violent crime rate up? The question should be: Why is the violent crime rate not higher than it is?
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure it out; all the answers were in the article. Among the factors driving crime rates in Florida (and Alachua County) are education, drugs and politics.
Lack of education provides the foot soldiers that connect the drug cartels and producers to the "responsible" recreational users. The state claims a graduation rate of 71 percent, a number inflated by including those who obtain special diplomas or a GED in the totals.
A high school diploma represents the minimal skills required for successful participation in the workforce and society. As many as 40 percent of Florida students leaving school are not high school graduates.
We can see where many go by taking a look at the population of Florida's prisons. In 2006 the median education level of our 88,576 prison inmates was the sixth grade. This number tells an even more tragic story when held under a magnifying glass.
African-Americans comprise 50 percent of the prison population but only 16 percent of the state census. Some 32,054 blacks (as opposed to 18,083 whites) had grade levels so low they could not even qualify for a GED program. If these percentages hold for the 600,000 disenfranchised felons on the streets of Florida, then there are 68 percent or 408,000 men and women whose GED Prep skills are below the ninth grade.
The FCAT is part of Florida's plan to increase student achievement by implementing higher standards. Florida's idea of implementing higher standards is to set the minimal bar for a high school education at 10th grade.
About 24 percent of new inmates are 24 years of age or less. The conclusion is clear: Florida schools are providing inmates for Florida's prison industry.
The Florida prison industry provides a post graduate education in higher levels of criminology. "Getting tough on crime" sets the atmosphere and Florida prison's provides the physical structures.
If we mark 1988 as the start of getting tough on crime we will see that 1987 had a recidivism rate of 35 percent. Recidivism for the last five years has hovered at 48 percent.
The crime wave is fueled by the drug trade. Drugs are big business in both Florida and in Gainesville. You have only to examine court records if there is any doubt.
You would think that in over 30 years the war on drugs would have made some gains. But drugs are more potent and just as easy to get. Why is this so?
The answer is clear. It is not in the best interest of the powers that be to end the war. Both the political and the criminal justice communities depend on this war for their survival and growth.
The political gold of the war on drugs comes in two forms. One is campaign contributions and the other is votes. We only need to look to the last election campaign for governor as a case in point. The Florida Police Benevolent reports donations of more than $2 million, with heavy backing to the Republican gubernatorial nominee.
This is an association that represents 34,000 law enforcement and corrections officers. Then there is the Department of Corrections (DOC) with a staff of over 26,083 employees who work the prisons of the state, where 60 percent of the inmates are incarcerated for drug related or drug incited crimes.
Upon assumption to office, an important agenda item for our new governor is the anti-murder bill and a special appropriation of $122 million in prison construction which will require an additional 300 or so new corrections officers. Florida's prison population is now expected to crest 100,000 inmates in the next few years.
Everyone is focused on the symptoms and not the problem. The problem is education and resolving the war on drugs instead of exploiting it.
The first step is a better education system. Educators argue that higher pay will get a better system. Starting pay for a teacher in Alachua County is $34,000; a corrections officer starts at $30,000.
Legislators argue there is no more money for education. There is a $60,000 difference in the taxes paid by high school graduates and non- high school graduates over a lifetime. Also, non-graduates are 30 percent more likely to be on welfare or in prison.
This means there could have been as much as $24.4 billion available to the Florida general fund if the state had met its responsibility to those 408,000 disenfranchised felons with less than a ninth grade education. In addition, the state loses $7.3 billion in prison related expenses for every year those 408,000 felons spend in prison.
The DOC says that for every rise in the grade level of the inmates there is a 5 percent reduction in recidivism. Yet, our Legislature has continuously cut prison education funding.
Think in terms of lost opportunities when only 1,322 inmates of a prison population of 88,576 inmates have earned a GED. Now, tell me: Is it any wonder there is not more crime?
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.