Jacksonville has a long, painful, and expensive history with violence.
The year 2020 saw the highest number of murders in Jacksonville in 30 years. Amid an unprecedented year of extraordinary difficulty, as a pandemic produced high levels of anxiety and economic instability, as well as deep racial, social, and political unrest, 144 souls were lost to murder in Jacksonville.
The social cost of each murder is estimated to range from $10 million to $19 million. Using Jacksonville’s 2020 murder numbers, the lower estimate totals $1.4 billion. For scale, Jacksonville’s current total city budget is $1.34 billion.
The emotional cost of each murder is incalculable.
And, unfortunately, the high murder rate of 2020 was not an anomaly. Jacksonville has been plagued by high rates of violence for decades. These patterns depict a particularly concentrated form of lethal violence that occurs primarily between young Black males living in areas of the city long known to be neighborhoods with disproportionate levels of poverty and inopportunity.
This is unequivocally bad for all residents, bad for businesses, and bad for the city as a whole. But most fundamentally, public safety is a human rights issue. People have a right to live in safety and they have the right to expect their government is positioned to ensure that safety.
JustJax was launched by the Episcopal Diocese of Florida — Prison and Related Ministries in the fall of 2020 to determine the feasibility of and next steps toward the creation of community- and data-driven policies focused on reducing violence in Jacksonville and enhancing public safety. From its inception, as JustJax team members we recognized the complexity of the task before us and so we approached the problem in multiple ways.
We thank Normal>Next for providing us with our student intern, Lynden Fausey, who was an essential part of the JustJax team. Most importantly, we thank the Jessie Ball duPont Fund for launching our journey.
Importantly, along with reviewing previous and current initiatives, data, and literature, we believed it was fundamentally important to listen to people whose lives are directly impacted by Jacksonville’s violence. So we reached out and were abundantly rewarded by the generosity of Jacksonville’s residents in sharing their perspectives, their stories, and their ideas for transformation. More than 100 people shared their experiences with us. These conversations we were privileged to be a part of have driven the recommendations of this report.
The violence notwithstanding, Jacksonville is also a city of hope, a city of incredible people, and a city filled with resources — though not all are shared. Violence in Jacksonville persists as a problem of inequity, inconsistency, and insufficiency. It is a problem of lack of attention, lack of will, and an imbalance of resources deployed toward community safety and well-being.
Historically the responsibility for this community safety has been almost entirely laid at the altar of law enforcement. But the reality is that the effect of simply responding to crime after it occurs is limited, and most importantly, is insufficient. As we heard repeatedly throughout this project, law enforcement alone has not and will not stop the violence in Jacksonville. By the time the police arrive it is too late. Jacksonville must also focus on preventive measures before it is too late.
To move beyond Jacksonville’s devastating legacy of urban violence, the city must learn from its own experiences, listen to its residents, and push its leaders to move forward to establish new citywide priorities.
As Jacksonville considers next steps, we assert a broader range of possible avenues to stem violence has been missing for too long.
Included in this report are recommendations for critical structural needs -– most importantly, the creation of an independent authority as a permanent hub of child well-being and violence reduction efforts as well as the enactment of a community-wide communication effort to bring the city together. There are additional recommendations here that focus on specific opportunities to address gaps in key areas of mental health, youth opportunities, and service provision.
To illustrate the power of storytelling, we’ve included personal narratives from JustJax respondents at the beginning of some sections. We have given the speakers pseudonyms so readers can concentrate on the power of their stories, and not necessarily be impacted by their names. These stories are compelling and help demonstrate the potency of storytelling. We thank the respondents who allowed us to tell their stories.
The truth is, there are undoubtedly numerous issues that must be faced and barriers that must be breached to arrive at needed change in Jacksonville. The complex nature of why the city arrived at this point and how to address its arrival requires solutions as complex as the questions themselves. We readily acknowledge we can’t address them all.
These recommendations are not exhaustive, but emerged time and again in our conversations, so much so that they demanded our attention. So, we listened.
- City Structure and Funding
Creation of an Independent Authority: For too long Jacksonville has been dependent upon the vagaries of politics as it attempted to solve the problem of violence on city streets. The establishment of an independent authority as the central planning, budgeting, and accountability entity for coordinating violence reduction and prevention and supportive programming for youth would ensure that these programs have continuity and are untethered to the ever-changing political climate.
Further, within the Independent Authority, we suggest expanding current efforts targeting the neighborhoods known to be hubs of violent activity through the creation of an Office of Neighborhood Violence Reduction. Such an office would be a distinct entity specifically designed to plan for, coordinate, and evaluate city-wide, cross-sector violence reduction strategies based within targeted neighborhoods known to be hubs of violence.
- Community Participation
In order to bridge gaps in understanding and connection between those charged with policy creation and the residents of Jacksonville, we recommend the formation of community groups to ensure responsive, respectful, and consistent citizen participation and to create a feedback loop into deliberations. These discussion groups could mirror the groups already being utilized by Jacksonville’s Center for Children’s Rights.
- Accountability, Transparency
Time and again, we heard of the divide between law enforcement and community members. Simply there’s no substitute for trust, and building trust, to bridge this divide. Trust can readily be advanced through ensuring a more fully public accounting of policing activities — and criminal justice system performance more generally. We suggest a task force be created to examine the transparency needs of Jacksonville’s criminal justice system and make recommendations regarding the introduction of a publicly accessible data portal for countywide criminal justice metrics.
The fact is that there are finite resources, even for law enforcement. If enforcement strategies, like arrests for low level offenses, are not providing the public safety return that the public deserves, then the public should know and resources can be targeted to greater public benefit. These kinds of findings and trends need to be monitored, and frankly treasured, for they are keys to a safer, fairer, more cost-effective criminal justice system.
- Telling Stories
Jacksonville is a tale of two cities – a division that began during the Jim Crow era, was highlighted by consolidation, and exists today between neighborhoods differentially marked by poverty and/or privilege. This divisiveness is characterized by a chasm of misunderstanding that has led to further distancing and apathy over the years. Overcoming that lack of understanding and creating deliberate opportunities to build individual and community connection is essential to creating the kind of citywide support needed to address the problems of public safety in Jacksonville’s neighborhoods.
Recommendations include leveraging pre-existing research in order to launch a city-wide, multi-pronged communication strategy to re-envision Jacksonville as a single city that casts public safety and violence reduction as a shared concern for all residents. Integral to this strategy is to leverage individual stories as a powerful means to enable empathy in people not personally connected to the city’s violence affected neighborhoods.
Such an effort should be organized by a team that possesses many different skills including the public relations ability to guide such a project. Other individuals –- writers, photographers, website builders, artists, videographers, and others –- can be brought into the process as partners when needed.
The Heart of a Neighborhood
The violence-affected neighborhoods in Jacksonville are communities where residents often suffer from low income, unemployment, poor mental and physical health, a lack of economic opportunities, inadequate housing, a lack of public safety, and a lack of community cohesion. Poverty in these neighborhoods is as ubiquitous as the violence. This recommendation envisions the revitalization of community centers, already in existence but underutilized, within the neighborhoods of greatest socioeconomic need to deliver a wide array of services within walking distance of residents.
Support for Students
No one entity or individual can be solely responsible for crime and violence reduction in Jacksonville. Moreover, the broader community involvement of individuals, groups, and institutions will only benefit efforts. We propose additional recommendations to leverage the central prominence of the county’s schools to ensure more youth have access to the tools they need to navigate the challenges they face growing up in Jacksonville.
First, we recommend the provision of more expansive, high-quality after-school programming, especially in order to meet the needs of older-age students, including those in high school whose needs are not currently as targeted by the city.
Second, we recommend the creation of a specific curriculum to address young people’s use of and understanding of social media. Gang-related violence has been perpetuated in Jacksonville through social media platforms. In this newer brand of gang warfare, online threats spill into real violence in the streets. While young people certainly know how to use social technology, they should be offered education on the real consequences and risks of these and other online behaviors.
Third, we recommend the incorporation of local Black and minority history into the current curriculum. Socialization of minority children to the historic significance of their race and ethnicity increases their self-esteem, heightens coping strategies, improves abilities to relate to others, and is correlated with better outcomes. In order to advance this effort, we also recommend providing resources and training to build a qualified and competent cadre of teachers prepared to support the development of all children.
Finally, we recommend increasing efforts to destigmatize mental health struggles and illness. Many young people could benefit from mental health intervention, yet do not seek treatment. We propose expanding the curriculum beyond current levels, partnering with nonprofits on novel approaches, and creating more resources for parents.
Taking it Online
March 2020 was the beginning of an unprecedented period of social disconnection and isolation. Every resident, and every bedrock institution integral to everyday life in Jacksonville was impacted. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, services once considered alternative models (like virtual learning and telehealth) immediately moved from optional to essential. And though the transition has been challenging, these new approaches have emerged as potential boons for communities that have less access to services whether due to their rural nature or lack of resources and transportation.
We suggest that the community take a comprehensive look at the provision of online human and health-related services to diminish access barriers that cause disparities of service provision between neighborhoods in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville must stop looking at its high murder rate as inevitable; it is not.
All of these recommendations will require resources, leadership, and a framework to address targeted and publicly accountable goals. It is beyond time for Jacksonville to build a framework for enterprise-level attention to the city’s violence, ensuring that what is a complex and difficult problem is treated not as a project, or in isolation, but as a community-wide priority. It’s time all Jacksonville residents realign their priorities to seek the correct course for the city as a whole. We cannot simply rely upon the city or law enforcement to solve this problem. That approach hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work now. Any change must come from the community itself.
The reality is that the violence is occurring now, people are dying now and children are exposed to this violence every day. The city must come together to focus on job number one: stopping the unending murders while building a framework that supports prevention and intervention efforts in a methodical and sustained way.
We hope that what we’ve provided is enough to at least begin the journey.