The most dangerous states in America

Charley Blaine and Michael B. Sauter
24/7 Wall
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The most dangerous states in America
Memphis at night.
Memphis at night.

You might expect California or New York to top a list of most dangerous states. But in fact, neither was even in the top five for the nation’s highest violent crime rate last year.

The FBI’s latest statewide statistics offer a snapshot of the underside of the 50 states: where violent crime -- murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- is most common. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states with the highest rates of violent crime in the country.

Last year violent crime rose slightly, just under 1%, after 20 years of steady decline. Crime peaked in the late 1980s, fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic. Although the exact cause of the decline remains unclear, experts have pointed to factors such as better policing, demographic changes, higher incarceration rates, a drop in cocaine use, and the introduction of a variety of social programs.

In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Urban Institute senior fellow John Roman pointed out that the crime decline has not been uniform. Crime has fallen markedly in some large cities, like New York, Dallas and Washington, D.C. However, the decline has been less impressive in cities like Baltimore and Detroit, where economic and racial segregation limit the ability of the poor to move into the middle class.

The more integrated the population is, the less common serious crime is, Roman explained. Most crime is committed by people at the bottom of the economic totem pole, he said.

The apparent relationship between low income, low education and higher crime rates has been well documented, although identifying the cause and effect is still a matter of debate. It is clear, though, that these states for the most part match the national trend. Of the 10 states with the highest rates of violent crime, eight have lower rates of adults with bachelor’s degrees, and most of them had median income levels below the national figure in 2012.

Yahoo Homes is publishing the top five states here. To see the full report with the rest of the top 10, visit the 24/7 Wall St. website:

On its website, the FBI instructs readers to avoid comparing state violence because rankings tend to be simplistic and ignore factors that influence crime, as well as the different ways crimes are measured and reported. For this reason, Roman cautioned against directly comparing states based on their individual crime rates. However, because the states with the highest and lowest violent crime rates have remained consistent for many years, “this exercise is worth doing," he said. "I don’t know how you make policy without doing this kind of thing.”

24/7 Wall St. identified the states with the highest rates of violent crime per 100,000 residents. Using estimated populations and crime incidents from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which measures incidents of eight types of violent and nonviolent crime for 2012, 24/7 Wall St. calculated the incidence of the four types of violent crime per 100,000 persons for that year: murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. In addition to crime data, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed income, poverty and education statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2012, the most recent available year.

These are the most dangerous states in America.

5. South Carolina
• Violent crimes per 100,000: 558.8
• Poverty rate: 18.3%
• Pct. of population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 25.1%
• Property crimes per 100,000: 3,822.2 (the highest)

South Carolina’s 18.3% poverty rate is the ninth worst in the country, and well above the U.S. average of 15.9%. Though it has been transforming itself into a hotbed of manufacturing, with companies such as Boeing and BMW opening manufacturing facilities, South Carolina has the nation’s fifth highest violent crime rate. Its murder rate of 6.9 per 100,000 is the fifth worst in the country. Its aggravated assault rate is the third worst. Roughly 25% have bachelor’s degrees, among the nation’s lowest figures.

4. New Mexico
• Violent crimes per 100,000: 559.1
• Poverty rate: 20.8%
• Pct. of population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 26.1%
• Property crimes per 100,000: 3,600.7 (4th highest)

For many Americans, New Mexico is Taos, Santa Fe and the big nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos. It is also a poor state. Its violent crime rate is the fourth worst in the country; its forcible rape rate is also fourth worst. It has among the highest rates of drug use in the country, which is known to encourage criminal activity. Its burglary rate is second worst. “We dare not pretend this does not have an effect on our economy or our overall quality of life,” former New Mexico legislator Dennis Kintigh wrote in the Albuquerque Journal earlier this year about the levels of violence in the state.

3. Alaska
• Violent crimes per 100,000: 603.2
• Poverty rate: 10.1%
• Pct. of population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 28.0%
• Property crimes per 100,000: 2,739.4 (24th lowest)

It may seem incongruous that Alaska, which has a low poverty rate and high levels of high school and college graduates, would be among the states with the worst crime rates. It has among the worst violent crime rates in part because of its forcible rape rate: 79.7 per 100,000 residents, the nation’s highest rate. (Next is South Dakota, with a rate of 70.2 per 100,000.) Also disturbing, a 2010 study suggests that 37% of women who live in Alaska say they’ve “suffered some form of sexual assault in their lives,” the Anchorage Daily News reported. Alaska is also second in aggravated assaults. While rape and assault rates are high, other crime levels are average.

2. Nevada
• Violent crimes per 100,000: 607.6
• Poverty rate: 16.4%
• Pct. of population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 22.4%
• Property crimes per 100,000: 2,809.4 (23rd highest)
Nevada ranks among the worst in the country for its robbery rate, motor-vehicle theft rate and aggravated assault rate. It also ranks high in categories like burglaries and forcible rape. Much of the crime, state officials maintain, comes from the swarms of tourists who visit Las Vegas, Reno and other cities with casinos and related entertainment. Factor out the casino traffic in Reno, and local crime rates are similar to the rest of the nation, Emmanuel Barthe, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada Reno, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. Nevada also has among the lowest high school and college graduation rates.

1. Tennessee
• Violent crimes per 100,000: 643.6
• Poverty rate: 17.9%
• Pct. of population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 24.3%
• Property crimes per 100,000: 3,371.4 (10th highest)
Tennessee has the dubious distinction of having the worst violent crime rate in the country. The state was among the top 10 in the country for murders and robberies and was first for aggravated assaults, with an estimated 479.6 for every 100,000 residents. Tennessee’s 41,550 violent crimes in 2012 were up 6.8% from 2011 but down 10% from 2007, when there were 46,380 violent crimes. There were 388 murders in the state in 2012, up for a second straight year. To be fair, Tennessee’s violent streak is concentrated in some of the major metropolitan areas. Memphis’s violent crime rate was the nation’s fifth worst, while Nashville’s was the 18th worst. Like many states with high violent crime, poverty in Tennessee is acute, and high school and college graduation rates are lower than most of the country.

Click here to see the rest of the 10 most dangerous states on the 24/7 Wall St. website.