By Michael Shank and US Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA)

Homicide, other violent crimes, incarceration, policing, and guns are costing this country hundreds of billions of dollars, and millions of jobs, every year. According to conservative estimates by the Institute for Economics and Peace, if the United States were on par with Canada on all five of those fronts, it could save $361 billion a year and add 2.7 million jobs. Given America’s high debt and unemployment, it could certainly benefit from both.

The United States Peace Index, created by the institute last year, can help us realize those savings and jobs. The five most peaceful American states on the 2011 index – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, and North Dakota, in that order – enjoy relatively low incidences of homicide and other violent crimes, low rates of incarceration, limited availability of firearms, and moderate levels of policing. That can be credited to these states’ social and economic policies.

The least peaceful states on the index are, from the bottom up, Louisiana, Tennessee, Nevada, Florida, and Alabama. Pennsylvania and New Jersey ranked 21st and 26th, respectively. New Jersey has shown a greater increase in peacefulness over the past two decades, however, improving 16.4 percent, while Pennsylvania’s has fallen 10.1 percent.

The index’s most peaceful states have some of the highest rates of health coverage, high school graduation, educational opportunity, and perceived access to basic services, as well as among the lowest rates of teen pregnancy, income inequality, poverty, and infant mortality. Given the well-established correlations among inequality, poverty, and violence, none of this is terribly surprising.

Educating children, insuring residents, providing basic services, preventing teen pregnancy and infant mortality, and lowering poverty and inequality rates reduces the prevalence of violent crime, incarceration, policing, and gun trafficking. A state’s ability to provide for its population in these areas dramatically increases its capacity to diminish violence.

States such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, then, would do well to reconsider budget cuts that have eaten away at education, health care, basic services, and economic opportunity over the last year. In Wisconsin, for example, a 25 percent reduction in violence would save the state almost $1.7 billion annually. In Ohio, the same reduction would save more than $3.6 billion, and in Florida, the savings would surpass $9.3 billion. (For Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the corresponding figures would be $4.4 billion and $2.7 billion, respectively.) Halving the violence in those three states would save almost $30 billion, and that’s using conservative calculations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate that for each life cut short by homicide, the economy loses $1.65 million in medical costs and lost years of employment and productivity. In 2009, violent crime cost the country a total of $94 billion in medical expenses and lost productivity, including $58 billion associated with assault and $11 billion with rape.

The country spends $80 billion a year on prisons, meanwhile, or about $35,000 per inmate. Total cost of productivity lost as a result: $97.7 billion.

America’s tendency is to pursue policies that react to violence rather than prevent it. As a result, the country is not only less prosperous, but less peaceful.

The way forward is to listen to what the index is telling us. A peace dividend is possible primarily through policies that prioritize equal opportunity, health, education, and poverty alleviation. That would save lives and money – a proposition that should appeal to all of us.

U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (D., Calif.) represents Silicon Valley and serves on the House Budget and Appropriations Committee. Michael Shank is the U.S. vice president of the Institute for Economics and Peace.