In Order to Form a More Perfect Union...
Americans, united by an ethos of individual freedom and opportunity, are almost as different from one other as they are from people on the other side of the globe; ask a New Yorker what they have in common with a Texan and you might get a gun pulled on you. Put a Minnesotan in a room with a Georgian and you might need a translator.
Within states, things are not so homogeneous either. With disparate groups living side by side and struggling for the same scarce resources (with continuing recession making them scarcer), conflict is a part of life and states deal with their populations in different ways. Some, like California, put them all in jails. Some, like Vermont, put them in rehabilitation programs. All of them share the same goal, though: protecting their citizens in the most effective way possible.
The new 2010 State Crime Rankings from CQ Press, released last month, show a nation that has certainly not developed any widespread best practices for combating crime. Some parts of the country exist in relative idyllic harmony while others rape and murder each other with what looks like reckless abandon in comparison. The study looked at incidences of six violent crimes (rape, murder, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and vehicle theft) in every state per 100,000 residents and then compared those numbers to national averages.
We’ll start with the 10 most criminal states and end with the most peaceful, going from coast to coast and everything in between.
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10th Most Criminal State: Arkansas
Leading off the 10 most criminal states in the country, Arkansas is most well-known in the history of law enforcement for its role in ending segregation in public schools.
Racism is still a motivation for crime in Arkansas, as made evident in the discovery of a plot to assassinate then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 in which an Arkansan played an integral part.
These days, law enforcement in the state is torn between the capital city, Little Rock, where most crimes are committed, and the state’s rural areas, where hunting is big and gun rights are fiercely defended, even by the state’s Democratic leaders.
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9th Most Criminal State: Arizona
As the second fastest growing state in the U.S. from 1991 to 2001, public institutions in Arizona have struggled to keep up with the parallel increase in crime during that period. Much of the population boom has been fueled by both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico, with whom the state shares a border. A recent case involving the murder of a rancher by an armed Mexican citizen entering the country illegally has morphed the debate on crime reduction to one of controlling illegal immigration.
Arizona’s senior senator and former presidential candidate John McCain has often supported the idea of installing a fence on the border with Mexico, and has recently gone further. He submitted a formal plea to Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, asking her to send National Guard troops to crack down on those trying to enter the country illegally.
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8th Most Criminal State: Maryland
There is a reason why HBO’s hit crime show, The Wire, was set in Baltimore during its five seasons. The city, which ranked just behind Compton, Calif., for its crime rate in 2009, was one of only a few that saw an increase in murders last year.
Despite the fact that the rate was among the city’s lowest in the past 20 years, homicides in Baltimore were many times the national average, and stood in stark contrast to the rest of the state, which actually saw an 11% reduction in murder last year. What a difference a city makes.
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7th Most Criminal State: Delaware
Delaware, the second-smallest state in the U.S. after Rhode Island, saw the biggest fall from grace of any state in 2010, dropping 10 spots down the list to become the state with the seventh-highest incidence of violent crime in 2009. The jury is out on exactly what accounted for the change, but a new bill in the Delaware House of Representatives may help clarify what is cause and what is cure.
Lawmakers in support of a bill to expand the state’s legalized gambling areas blame rising crime on unemployment, and are considering expanding casinos and racetracks to create more jobs and thus reduce crime. This, however, will likely take place alongside a reduction in the police force brought about by budget cuts, which some expect will lead to an overall increase in crime next year.
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6th Most Criminal State: Florida
When Florida governor Charlie Crist called a press conference this week to announce that the state’s crime rate in 2009 was the lowest in 39 years, it was a vindication of the governor’s recent efforts to curb violent crime, mainly through proposals for tougher sentencing and longer incarceration of criminals.While the state’s overall crime rates show an improvement compared to earlier years, though, Florida still ranks high on the list of the most crime-ridden states in the union. Its 15% increase in domestic violence murders in 2009 was enough to overshadow the 13% drop in other murders, indicating that Governor Crist has a ways to go yet.Photo Credit: dno1967
5th Most Criminal State: Tennessee
Last year was a bad one for Tennessee. In addition to dropping one place in the state crime rankings, the state experienced a 10% increase in campus crime and a number of legislative setbacks concerning restrictions on handgun use and possession.
But its low ranking may have been a wake-up call for Tennessee. A new strategy targeting illegal drug manufacturing operations as an important source of crime saw unprecedented cooperation among the state’s various branches of law enforcement in early 2010.
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4th Most Criminal State: South Carolina
Going from third-most criminal state last year to fourth in 2010 is little consolation for South Carolina, which still struggles to reduce its incidence of violent crimes. Politicians and law enforcement agencies in the state are therefore getting more creative with their ideas to solve the problem.
With a 12.7% unemployment rate, South Carolina has been one of the hardest hit since the recession began in 2008. With studies showing a link between poverty and crime, state law enforcement officials came together to lobby the federal government for a higher child tax credit in the budget, hoping to bring more South Carolinian families out of poverty. At the same time, the successful effort to reform the state’s prison system has seen more resources go to the rehabilitation of inmates in an effort to reduce the amount of repeat offenders in the state.
South Carolina lawmakers will no doubt be keeping a close eye on crime rates this year to monitor whether or not these efforts are successful.
Photo Credit: Hunter-Desportes
3rd Most Criminal State: Louisiana
The link between alcohol and crime is nowhere more evident than in the Big Easy, a city known as much for its girls gone wild as for its historical importance as a trading hub for the middle United States. The sixth most dangerous city in the country, it’s one of only a handful of places where one can drink alcohol in public, and the year-round partying ensures a steady supply of both drunken hotheads who commit crimes and drunken victims who are too far gone to defend themselves.
Ranked the third most criminal state last year, Louisiana has recently approved a measure to label the driver’s licenses of two-time drug offenders, hoping to shame those criminals into behaving in accordance with the law. For a state with a well-established tradition of debauchery, this novel approach might prove to be a success.
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2nd Most Criminal State: New Mexico
The runner-up in the 2010 state-by-state crime rankings, New Mexico looks poised to challenge for the top spot next year. Rampant gang problems throughout the state have worsened thanks to laws concerning gang violence, which are much more lenient than those of neighboring states. The result? Gang members in California and Arizona moving to New Mexico to avoid severe mandatory sentences for third offenses.
While attempts have been made to enact stricter punishments for gang-related crime, the state’s limited law enforcement budget has prevented those efforts from becoming law. Whether an economic problem or a policy problem, it does not bode well for the state’s future that gang members themselves consider it a haven for their illegal activities.
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Most Criminal State: Nevada
Topping the list as the most crime-ridden state in the union, for a shocking 7th consecutive year, is Nevada. While Las Vegas, the City of Sin and the state’s largest town, ranks only 67th in the most criminal cities, its Clark County contains 75% of the state’s population and most of its crime. Tourism in the Las Vegas area is often cited for the high incidences of crime; with people continually entering the state for short periods, law enforcement officials face a difficult challenge.
The state experienced higher rates than the national average for all six crimes under consideration in the study, notably in motor vehicle theft (94% above the national average), robbery (71% higher) and rape (45% higher). It looks like if Nevada hopes to pass on the crown of the most crime-ridden state next year, they may have to take a gamble on some innovative methods of reducing violent crime.
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10th Most Peaceful State: Iowa
Let’s change tack and see what we can learn from the most peaceful states in the country, with Iowa starting off the top 10.
In the heart of the Corn Belt, Iowan farmers produce food for the globe. Used to seasonal changes in employment caused by the annual harvests, Iowa’s residents are resourceful and the state unemployment rate is a full three percentage points below the national average, contributing to its status as the second-happiest state in the union in MainStreet.com’s Happiness Index.
In the capital city, Des Moines, the police chief who is credited with the city’s dramatic decrease in crime is retiring this year, and his successor may have his work cut out for him to keep Iowa in the top 10.
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9th Most Peaceful State: South Dakota
Just as the faces carved into South Dakota’s Mt. Rushmore look nothing like faces when you are actually standing on them, the statistics that make it the nation’s ninth most peaceful state tell a more complicated story upon close inspection. While the state posted low incidences of most crimes in 2009, its unusually high frequency of rape skewed its ranking downward considerably. Rapid City, with a population under 60,000, has twice had the unfortunate honor of leading the nation in rapes.
This might be one reason South Dakota lost five spots on its previous year’s ranking, but lawmakers will need to address the problem in one way or another to avoid a similar slide next year.
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8th Most Peaceful State: Wisconsin
Cheeseheads have a new reason to be proud of their state, which jumped five positions up the state crime ranking compared to the previous year, to number eight. The statistic is all the more surprising considering that the state has some of the most relaxed gun-control laws and some of the most lenient attitudes toward alcohol use in the nation.
State legislators, some of whose DUI arrests have set a disturbing example in Wisconsin, have taken strides to identify and support best practices in law enforcement in a cooperative effort that many others may see the value in replicating in their states.
Photo Credit: Scott Feldstein
7th Most Peaceful State: Montana
The state with the third lowest population density in the U.S. is also the seventh least criminally inclined in the country, thanks in large part to the state’s Board of Crime Control, a cooperation among law enforcement, policymakers and community members who decide jointly how to administer state and federal grants to reduce crime.
With this progressive approach to crime prevention, Montana is poised to stay in the top 10 for some time.
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6th Most Peaceful State: Wyoming
Wyoming, the U.S. state with the lowest population density in the country, ranked sixth in incidences of violent crime. With 11 murders in 2009, violent crime is a rarity in Wyoming, and most incidences of crime are limited to theft and other nonviolent offenses.
Having overcome former problems with hate crimes and gangs, a recent rape case that showed an Internet ruse leading to the crime has prompted law enforcement officials in the state to look into modernizing their techniques to address this new threat.
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5th Most Peaceful State: Idaho
Idaho, known as the Gem State for the precious minerals that have been discovered there, burnished its already shining reputation by jumping up six places in the rankings for the most peaceful states in the country. With close connections and information sharing with other states’ crime prevention departments, Idaho has truly taken crime prevention to the community by commissioning a mobile training program to work with neighborhood watch associations around the state.
Nevertheless, hate crimes and white supremacist groups continue to plague the state, with groups such as the Aryan Nation circulating racist propaganda to Idaho’s 95% white population and fostering an ideology of lawlessness among its followers.
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4th Most Peaceful State: Maine
In addition to being the fourth most peaceful state, Maine, with its natural beauty and thriving lobster industry, is widely known as one of the most progressive states in the union in terms of policymaking. It was the first to legalize gay marriage (a measure that was later repealed), and one of the first to legalize medicinal marijuana. In crime also it has bucked national trends for some years, with incidences of all violent crimes below the national averages.
While domestic violence is the leading source of crimes in Maine, 2009 saw at least one murder linked to the so-called Lobster Wars, with rival fishermen fighting over the precious resource. If the nationwide recession does not abate soon, there may be more such cases cropping up in 2010.
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3rd Most Peaceful State: North Dakota
With the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S., North Dakota is weathering the economic storm better than most. But the state is also doing better than most in curbing crime, coming in as the third most peaceful state in the U.S. Demographic trends might be partially to thank, as the state regularly sees the net emigration of its residents as they get educated and seek skilled work in other parts of the country where there are more such jobs.
What crime North Dakota does have is usually linked to alcohol abuse, and the state has taken concrete measures to address the problem, including a very successful pilot program to administer daily breathalyzer tests to DUI offenders, a program set to expand to anyone who was under the influence of alcohol when they committed a crime.
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2nd Most Peaceful State: Vermont
Defending its runner-up status is Vermont, second best in 2010’s contest for the state with the least crime in the country. With the second-lowest absolute population in the country, Vermont consistently ranks at the top of a number of metrics. In the past five years it has been named, among other things, as the healthiest state in the country, the sixth highest in general well-being, the third safest for highway fatalities, and the best state for litter removal.
Of course, there are pockets of crime in the state, and drug-related crime in rural areas is one area to which Vermont has dedicated a lot of attention recently, mobilizing its resources to develop community-based solutions to the problem and enlisting the help of the federal government. With the FBI on their side, Vermont is leading the nation in combating rural drug abuse, and is also playing an important role in sharing best practices across the country.
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Most Peaceful State: New Hampshire
For the third year in a row, it is New Hampshire that takes the top honor over its neighbors as the state with the lowest incidence of violent crime in the U.S. Residents have many reasons to be peaceful, as the state charges no sales tax or income taxes at the state and local levels.
It’s not to say that crime doesn’t happen in New Hampshire, but rather it seems that effective policing has kept the numbers low. In the past 10 years, the prison population has increased 31 percent while the corrections budget has nearly doubled.
All eyes in New Hampshire are focused on a new measure currently under debate in the state legislature that would change parole guidelines statewide, releasing nonviolent and drug offenders from prison at significantly earlier points in their sentences. While the bill has generated opposition among state residents, lawmakers appear set to pass the measure. Crime watchers around the country will likely be watching the resulting effects closely.
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