Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mayor, sheriff, council president address high murder rate

Special to the Times-Union

Note to readers: The Times-Union Editorial Page asked the sheriff, the mayor and the City Council president to explain how they are addressing Duval County's state-leading murder rate. Excerpts are below. Complete responses can be found on the Times-Union's Web site. Go to Enter "Reader Mall" in the keyword search.


Question: Do you have a plan to reduce Jacksonville's murder rate to the state average? If so, please describe it. What is your timetable?

Answer: Aspiring to reduce Jacksonville's murder rate to the state average is setting our sights too low, although it would be a good first step. Unfortunately, violence in Jacksonville has been brewing for decades.

Poverty, illiteracy and educational challenges; broken families, unaddressed mental health issues and the decay of our urban core have all contributed to the growth of violent crime here and in other large cities, and we have an even greater challenge than most with regard to literacy.

No one person or institution can address the problem, and it's not going to be solved overnight, or during my term as mayor. That makes the real solution a tough sell, because people want results. Increased support for law enforcement and more effective prosecution are proven violent crime reducers in the short term, but we can't arrest our way out of this problem.

Prevention efforts and targeted interventions - such as family crisis and mental health counseling, truancy prevention, and other services formerly provided through the Juvenile Assessment Center - must be enhanced.

We need to make a commitment as a community to support law enforcement with proper funding and cooperation. But we also need to come up with the wherewithal to fund and support prevention efforts like my early literacy program and the Seeds of Change initiative, and youth services.

Question: What is your office doing to help prevent murders? What is the status of the Harlem project?

Answer: My three top priorities have been public safety, economic growth and early literacy. All three of these priorities will have an effect on violent crime down the road.

I have worked to ensure adequate funding for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. My early literacy initiative, RALLY Jacksonville!, is improving the odds for thousands of children in our community by setting them on the path to success and productivity rather than failure, poverty and crime.

We've also worked to empower citizens, improve neighborhoods and remove environmental contributors to crime through the Seeds of Change initiative.

We are currently working to support the reopening of the Juvenile Assessment Center. In spite of enormous financial pressure from the recent actions of the Florida Legislature, we were able to fund both the initial meetings of the Harlem Children's Zone exploratory group and the study phase of the project.

Question: What are you doing to help revive a Juvenile Assessment Center and create a system that helps identify juveniles in trouble and get them help before they commit serious crimes?

Answer: The last year the Juvenile Assessment Center was open - 2005 - it processed nearly 7,000 young people. That was the fourth highest rate in the state of Florida. Clearly, the center needs to be opened and expanded. I am committed to identifying funds to revive the center, which is an important first step on the road to reduced violence in the future. I think re-opening this crucial facility is a must, and I will work with the sheriff and anyone else who steps forward to help.

Additionally, I think it's time to re-examine Juvenile Justice Comprehensive Strategy created on Mayor John Delaney's watch. The Comprehensive Strategy Steering Committee is still meeting, and there is a lot of brain power there.

This strategy identified the priority risk factors for juvenile crime: poverty, early academic failure, a lack of commitment to school, family management problems, availability and use of drugs and mental health issues. There's lots of good information in the original study and recommendations, and we don't have to recreate the wheel; the facts about the effectiveness of targeted intervention speak for themselves.

The difficulty, again, is funding and the community's will to succeed. There's no doubt that the dollars we spend on prevention and intervention will provide a huge return on investment. Think about the fact that it costs about $85 a day to house an inmate in jail - about $31,000 a year.

Clearly, devoting funds today to prevention and intervention efforts that address the root causes of crime will result in huge savings down the road; savings not just of millions of dollars, but - more importantly - thousands of lives.


Question: Do you have a plan to reduce Jacksonville's murder rate to the state average?

Answer: I plan to continue our focus on illegal gun and drug activity; street level, low level, mid level and our high level drug enforcement activities.

Because this is "ground zero" of where the violence and murder are occurring, and we know that drugs and guns (social issues aside) are where law enforcement's greatest success at addressing aggravated batteries and murder can occur.

Question: What is your timetable?

Answer: Operation Safe Streets was launched in spring 2006, and we continue to work both the overt and covert tactical activities that are netting us good arrests. We are continuously improving on that plan - and now that the budget is finalized and the Matrix operations audit is due, I will be able to make even more decisions about how we can "ratchet up" the program.

Question: What is your office doing to prevent murders?

One of the results of Operation Safe Streets, as we learned in the first year, is the number of excellent tips from citizens that resulted in an increase in arrests.

Most first-time offenders don't start out murdering - they rob at gunpoint, they carjack, they deal dope. The work of our school resource officers with students, the work of our Police Athletic League with young children, and all the outreach and contact our men and women are having with citizens in the community, about this issue and the ways it can be prevented with their help, continues to be a major part of the solution.

Question: What is the status of the Chicago-based prevention program?

Answer: I believe you are referring to our violent criminal re-entry program, Dismas. We are on track for our first meeting in December.

We learned a lot observing the other programs, such as Chicago. We decided to improve on a few things. We're putting all the program components into place, like making sure the resources are right there in the room with the participants at the meeting - so they don't have to seek them on their own.

Question: What are you doing to help revive a Juvenile Assessment Center and help create a system that helps identify juveniles in trouble, and get them help before they commit serious crimes?

Answer: First, identifying juveniles in trouble: Our patrol officers work hard on curfew and truancy enforcement. I worked with City Council to enact a new curfew ordinance that now affords the parents of kids with multiple infractions the option of going to a parenting class, instead of paying a fine. I don't know of any preventive action that could be more effective than this - getting the family the help it needs. The Empowered Parent program - the alternative to paying the fine - really works.

On the issue of the Juvenile Assessment Center, my work in Tallahassee for the past two sessions resulted in some funding. But the state budget we worked so hard on was cut, and we were forced to make adjustments. While all the partners are committed to the center, funding remains a challenge. Our department is working to identify some federal forfeiture dollars that we might be able to direct that way. We are in the planning stage now with the Department of Juvenile Justice to renovate the old facility.

Conclusion: My responses to these questions have been primarily focused on law enforcement's work in the area of violence and murder. I have not addressed the underlying social issues that we know are among the root causes of violence and murder.

A breakdown of the family or families with no structure. A lack of parental involvement in a child's life, a child's education, whereabouts, their friends.

Employment opportunities are challenging for those without an education or with a police record, or with a multi-generational history of low education and criminal records. And a lack of focus on character training - all are at the root of any city's crime problem - just to name a few.


Question: Do you have a plan to reduce Jacksonville's murder rate to the state average? If so, please describe it. What is the timetable?

Answer: My job is to fund the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office so it can fight crime and keep our citizens safe. We are awaiting an audit of the office that should give us more details about possible administrative efficiencies. This may allow us to place more officers on the street without additional costs. Meanwhile, City Council should fund measures to increase police presence in high-crime areas.

Question: What is your office doing to help prevent murders?

Answer: I believe the ultimate solution to our problem is to change people on the inside. We have to give hope to the hopeless. I'm currently working with Northeast Florida Builders Association's Builders Care and The Tony Boselli Foundation to refurbish city community centers to create learning centers for needy children. My goal is to establish a model educational outreach in high-crime areas that are replicated across the city.

Question: What are you doing to help revive a Juvenile Assessment Center, and create a system that helps identify juveniles in trouble and get them help before they commit serious crimes?

Answer: We've worked with the state Legislature to fund the capital expenses for a new Juvenile Assessment Center, but were unsuccessful obtaining the funds. In 2008, we will try again.

However, we have to realize prevention as well as public safety costs money. It doesn't just happen.

No comments: