Last week’s debate between Florida governor Ron DeSantis and California governor Gavin Newsom was a study in contrasts. In one corner stood a governor who defiantly resisted the lockdowns and mask mandates championed by the Trump and Biden administrations’ public-health officials. In the other: a governor who relished imposing such lockdowns and mandates but, unlike the current president, can defend those choices in complete sentences.

It’s too early to tell whether, or how much, the governors’ debate will shake up the presidential race in either party. But it certainly illustrated California’s and Florida’s radically different policies, not just on Covid, which John Tierney recently covered for City Journal, but also on crime.

“We’re near 50-year lows . . . [in] violent crimes in the state of California,” Newsom claimed during the debate. In truth, California’s violent crime rate is at a ten-year high—and rising. That’s the verdict of both the FBI’s and the Golden State’s own statistics. Meanwhile, according to both FBI and Florida statistics, the Sunshine State’s violent crime rate is down substantially from a decade ago, with the two lowest rates registered in the two most recent years with available data.

Debate moderator Sean Hannity put up a graphic during the debate showing that California’s violent crime rate in 2022 (the most recent year available) was 499.5 violent-crime offenses per 100,000 residents. Florida’s, by contrast, was 259. Hannity accurately cited the FBI’s own statistics for each state, but there’s reason to believe that those numbers aren’t wholly reliable.

In 2021, the FBI stopped allowing “summary” reporting from states and started requiring “incident-based” reporting, which provides detailed information about each crime occurrence. But most of Florida’s law enforcement agencies apparently were not ready to make that switch on the FBI’s timeline, so the percentage of Florida’s agencies that reported their data to the FBI dropped from nearly all (99 percent) in 2019 and 2020 to less than half in 2021 and 2022. And while 98 percent of California’s agencies reported data to the FBI in 2022, Los Angeles and San Francisco did not. The FBI, therefore, had to “impute” (or guess at) the missing data for each state. Doing so accurately would be a very difficult—and perhaps impossible—task, even for a federal statistical agency, which the FBI most certainly is not.

Therefore, the states’ own data—much of which the FBI won’t accept since it is not in incident-based form—is likely more accurate than the FBI’s data in showing recent years’ trend lines. From 2019 to 2022, California says its violent crime rate rose 14 percent; Florida says that its rate fell 4 percent. (Almost all federal crime statistics depend upon such data, which the states—in the spirit of federalism—voluntarily provide to the FBI and to the Department of Justice’s statistical agency, the Bureau of Justice Statistics.)

The reporting issues that first materialized in 2021 were generally not a problem in 2019 (when 99 percent of both states’ agencies reported data to the FBI), so the FBI statistics for 2019 likely are reliable. Applying the states’ own trend lines to the 2019 FBI statistics indicates that Florida’s violent crime rate in 2022 was 362 violent crimes per 100,000 residents (4.4 percent lower than 2019’s rate of 378.2), while California’s was 504 (14.1 percent higher than 2019’s rate of 442.1). So, since the year that DeSantis and Newsom both took office, California’s violent crime rate apparently has gone from being 17 percent higher than Florida’s to 39 percent higher.

To put this widening gap into perspective, California says that 173,000 violent crimes (rounding to the nearest 1,000) occurred in the state in 2019. If that figure had declined 4 percent, as Florida’s violent crime rate did over that span, there would have been 166,000 violent crimes committed in 2022. If we factor in California’s 2 percent population drop since 2019, the number of violent crimes would have fallen to 163,000. Instead, California recorded 193,000 violent crimes in 2022—30,000 more than would have taken place had its trend line from 2019 to 2022 matched Florida’s.

The deadliest form of violent crime, of course, is murder. During the debate, Newsom raised “the issue in Florida, that you didn’t mention, and that’s the murder rate.” He claimed that Florida “has a higher murder rate” than California.

That’s likely false. According to the FBI, Florida’s murder rate in 2022 was 5.0 homicide deaths per 100,000 residents, while California’s was 5.7 per 100,000. In other words, California’s murder rate was 14 percent higher than Florida’s, based on the most recent FBI figures.

Since the FBI’s figures for 2022 aren’t entirely reliable, as noted, let’s apply the states’ own trend lines in recent years to the FBI figures for 2019. In 2019, the FBI said that Florida had 5.2 homicide deaths per 100,000 residents, while California had 4.3. Florida says its homicide rate has risen 5 percent since, while California says its rate has risen a whopping 36 percent. Applying those trend lines to the FBI’s 2019 statistics yields homicides rates for 2022 of 5.4 per 100,000 residents in Florida and 5.8 per 100,000 in California. So, it appears that California’s homicide rate went from being 17 percent lower than Florida’s in 2019 to being 7 percent higher than Florida’s three years later.

Many legacy media outlets have cited the CDC’s homicide figures to vindicate Newsom, but the CDC’s data are adjusted to reflect states’ age distributions. Since Florida has an older population, the CDC artificially raised the state’s murder rate.

It makes good sense to adjust for age when looking at mortality rates from diseases, which are profoundly affected by the ages of those involved. It makes little sense, however, to adjust murder rates in a similar fashion. People want to know how likely they are to be murdered in a given state, not how likely they are to be murdered relative to the average age of their fellow residents. No one will take comfort in hearing, “You’re more likely to be killed here than elsewhere, but people are younger here, so the age-adjusted murder rate is actually the same.” As the CDC itself says, “Age-adjusted rates should be viewed as relative indexes rather than actual measures of risk.” Presumably, most Americans would prefer to see those actual measures of risk.

The cause of California’s crime spike under Newsom might be found in statistics published by his state. Even though the number of violent offenses in California rose 11 percent from 2019 to 2022 (despite that loss of 2 percent of its population over that span), the number of felony arrests for violent offenses fell by 10 percent over that period. Arresting criminals is an important part of preventing crime, but doing so often runs afoul of the race-conscious tenets of “equity” that progressive policymakers like Newsom hold dear.

In sum, the best available statistics indicate that during the year in which Newsom and DeSantis both took office, California’s murder rate was 17 percent lower than Florida’s, and its overall violent-crime rate was 17 percent higher. After three years of each man’s governance, California’s murder rate is now 7 percent higher than Florida’s, and its overall violent crime rate outpaces Florida’s by 39 percent.  

Seeing these two governors square off should remind voters that, as President Barack Obama observed, “Elections have consequences.”

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


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