"We are at a 40-year low in our crime rate in our state."

Rick Scott on Friday, April 13th, 2012 in comments to Reuters

Rick Scott said Florida crime rates are at a 40-year low

Florida crime rates are at 40-year lows.

Forty-year lows? That’s the kind of dramatic statement that makes fact-checkers sit up and say, "Really?"

Gov. Rick Scott has made that statement several times when asked about the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Fla. His comments seem intended to reassure people that Florida is a safe place to work and live, even while the state investigates the Martin shooting. (See Scott discuss it on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.)

"We are at a 40-year low in our crime rate in our state," he said in an April 13, 2012, report from Reuters. "From a public safety standpoint we are absolutely heading in the right direction."

Martin died after a resident, George Zimmerman, reported him to 911 as acting suspicious. The operator told Zimmerman not to pursue Martin, but Zimmerman shot Martin a short while later.

Police didn’t arrest Zimmerman, and that angered Martin’s family and others. It also got people talking about Florida’s "stand your ground" law, which allows people to use deadly force when they believe their lives are at risk.

Scott said an official review of the controversial "stand your ground" law will begin after the investigation into the shooting itself is complete.

A reader (and Palm Beach Post reporter) on Twitter reported that Scott again said crime rates were at 40-year lows during a forum in West Palm Beach; she asked us to check it out. So we decided to investigate.

Our first stop was with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Crime statistics on the website only go back 11 years, so we contacted the department directly. It provided us with crime statistics from 2010 back to 1971, for a total of 40 years.

The department uses the number of crimes and the population of Florida to calculate crime rates, so different years can be compared. The crime rate shows how many crimes occurred per 100,000 people.

In 1971, the crime rate was 5,668. The rate crept up through the 1970s, peaking in the late 1980s at 8,908. The rate then slowly dropped through the 1990s. In 2000, it dropped below the 1971 mark and continued downward. In 2010, the crime rate reached a new low of 4,105. (See the data for yourself.)

As we dug deeper, we saw that Scott has been touting the statistic since it was first announced by the department almost a year ago.

Do the numbers reflect reality, though? From time to time, there have been allegations that local police haven’t always reported numbers as accurately as they should. We addressed this point in detail in another fact-check. Overall, though, we found no evidence that isolated cases of cheating undermine the larger trend of declining crime rates.

We should also point out that Florida isn’t the only place experiencing historically low crime rates, even during a severe economic recession.

Why are rates declining? Nobody can say for sure.

"I wish we had some really good answers, but we don’t," said Ronald L. Akers, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida. "There have been a number of reasonable hypotheses that fit what we know, but nothing we can really pin down with certainty."

The theories are highly diverse, and some are fairly controversial, as we noted in previous fact-checks on crime rates.

Here are some of the ideas that have been advanced to explain the lower crime rates: Police are getting better at using technology to prevent crime. More people are in jail and therefore can’t commit crimes. Drug addiction is not as widespread as it once was. Online banking and debit cards mean people don’t have cash at home. Abortions have suppressed the number of poor, unsupervised young men. Low inflation makes stealing non-cash items less attractive. President Barack Obama is setting a positive example for African-American youth. New gun laws establishing the right to carry are deterring criminals. Joblessness means people are at home watching the neighborhood. Extended unemployment benefits and food stamps mean people don’t have to turn to crime. Banning lead paint and leaded gasoline has reduced criminal impulses among young men.

In the case of Scott’s comments, he didn’t get into the causes of the crime rates or claim unearned credit for the trend. Rather, he was pointing out that while individual crimes might receive a great deal of media attention, statistics show that crime rates in Florida are at 40-year lows. The official numbers confirm Scott’s statement. We rate his statement True.