By Mark Robison
Superheroes and Occupy protestors may debate whether crime pays but one thing’s for sure: crime costs.
When a violent crime happens, there’s of course the horrible cost to the victim. But this story’s focus is its burden to the economy.
There’s the direct cost of police, fire and medical personnel and often the judicial costs of seeing the offender through the system and maintaining him (or her) in jail.
If the crime was a homicide, there’s the lost productivity for the years that the victim would’ve been in the workforce contributing to society. Even with violent crimes where the victim survives, their goals often get postponed or derailed. Then there are the lost efforts of those around the victim from the stress and depression that often follows. And the offender isn’t helping society from the confines of a jail cell, either — and his family is likely struggling as a result of his incarceration.
All of this is especially relevant here because Nevada has been labeled the third most violent state in the nation, or the third least peaceful, depending on your viewpoint.
In short, violence is hurting Nevada’s economy. But knowing this might help us with budget and policy decisions we must make now.
The 2012 U.S. Peace Index report looks at five indicators of violence: overall violent crime, homicides, incarceration rates, police per capita and the availability of “small arms.”
Michael Shank — U.S. vice president of the Institute for Economics and Peace, which puts out the index for American states as well as countries around the world — said, “The goal is to put a cost to violence and make the economic case for increased peacefulness.”
The Centers for Disease Control puts the direct cost of a homicide at $1.3 million, he said. Reno has about 10 a year so that’s $13 million a year out of city funds.
Shank added that imprisoning someone costs about $30,000 to $50,000 a year.
For these “static” costs from violent crime, Shank said, Nevada spends about $1.49 billion a year.
And there’s the lost productivity mentioned above. Shank said this costs Nevada $3.97 billion a year.
The Institute for Economics and Peace takes its five violence indicators and correlates them with social and economic indicators to see which ones are strongly linked.
“The most peaceful states have the highest graduation rates and highest rates of health-insured residents, the lowest poverty and income inequality, the highest access to water and medicine, the lowest infant mortality rates and even less diabetes,” Shank said.
He said more peaceful states also have more social capital: people volunteer more, they participate in town and school affairs more, they have a greater sense that people can be trusted, etc.
“If you have an education, a job, clean water, shelter, like your community, have high social trust and are living with both parents — states with more violence have more children in single-parent families — then you’re less likely to give this all up to act violently,” he said.
“But if you don’t have a job, education, great health and a community that supports you, you have little to lose. There aren’t a lot of deterrents to violence in that case. If you have more incentives to keep the peace, then you’re less likely to resort to violence.”
Nevada is not among those peaceful states. In the Peace Index, it ranks 48th, after only Louisiana and Tennessee.
It ranks worst — not near the worst but the very worst — in the nation for high school graduation rates, domestic violence related murders and overall violent crime. These are just the headline-grabbing statistics, but it’s not good in less glamorous areas, too.
For example, the Commonwealth Fund puts out annual report cards on health. For 2011, Nevada ranked dead last for its children’s health system, where out of 27 criteria, Nevada ranked in the top five percent of states zero times and in the bottom five percent seven times.
These included categories such as the percent of children with health insurance (49th out of 51), percent of parents insured (45th), percent of children who had a preventive medical care visit in the past year (49th), percent of children with oral health problems (49th) and percent of special-needs kids who had no problems getting referrals when needed (48th).
Emmanuel Barthe, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Reno, said, “We do have a higher (crime) rate but that’s mostly because of Las Vegas and Reno — it’s not the casinos who are to blame but the sheer number of people they attract. In Reno, we attract about 400,000 tourists a month downtown so it swells the population and thus the crime.”
He said when tourists are factored out, the crime rate here mirrors national trends.
He added that research shows casinos and gaming towns in general have opposing forces at work: They bring more people — especially strangers — together, which increases crime. But at the same time, there are more eyes and cameras so there’s a chastening effect.
Chris Innes, chief of research and information services at the National Institute of Corrections, said the large influx of tourists makes Reno an “unusual” case where the crime numbers are distorted.
But, he said, “there are some things in Nevada that point to serious problems,” such as the low graduation rate, poor child health system and low funding for education.
Effect on business
With all this negative data about crime, you might think businesses would have a reservations about relocating here.
Mike Kazmierski said that’s not the case. He’s president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, which recruits companies to move or expand here.
“We deal with between 100 and 200 businesses every year — and last year, the crime rate was never mentioned,” he said.
Despite this, Kazmierski said, crime is definitely one of the things companies look at when relocating.
He’s unsure why the crime numbers are at odds with the feeling of safety here — perhaps it’s the effect of tourists or different methods of reporting by different communities.
But he said he read that Chicago had 10 homicides last weekend, whereas in all of 2009, Reno had nine homicides.
“We take our prospects downtown and to all parts of this community and generally speaking, this community is seen as very livable and family friendly,” Kazmierski said.
“So the question I would ask is, ‘Do you feel safe here or not?’ And the people I talk to think this is a safe community.”
Increase the peace
Shank said his group doesn’t get into a lot of policy prescriptions but instead hopes the statistics can help guide decisions.
That said, getting kids “through high school is certainly key,” he said. “The strongest correlation is high school education, not university education; it’s getting them graduated and making sure all kids have good access to education. … (And) education can help with teen pregnancy.”
In an example of priorities that policymakers might revisit, Nevada is eighth highest in the nation for spending on imprisoning its citizens but 48th in spending per student. (This is from a 2010 National Education Association report.)
Both Shank and Barthe said that productive activities for teens are important — otherwise idleness leads to boredom then petty crime then larger crimes.
Innes echoed their suggestions: “The work that has been done on the cost-benefit of programs has consistently shown the best return on investment is preventive programs for young people, just things to structure their leisure time, to help them connect with the community, mentoring programs and skills-building programs.”
And who can best effect change?
“I think it’s everyone,” Shank said.
“I hope that when people read something like this, they can see their role in it. Policymakers have a role to play, but in terms of keeping the community safe, that involves everybody. It’s a key component and people may be more inclined to run and hide but what we need is the opposite, for people to build trust and social capital in a community.”
U.S. most peaceful now
The 2012 U.S. Peace Index, aside from finding Nevada is one of the nation’s least peaceful states, also found that the United States is more peaceful now than at any time in the past 20 years.
Even so, it calculates the total cost of violence to the U.S. at more than S460 billion while lost productivity from violence amounted to $318 billion.
For the 11th consecutive year, the most peaceful state is Maine, where violence costs the average taxpayer $1,281 a year. This compares to the national average per taxpayer of $3,257 a year.
It’s estimated that if all states had the same level of peacefulness as Maine, $274 billion worth of extra economic activity could be generated. This additional economic activity would be enough to generate more than 1.7 million jobs.
More cops = more violence?
In the U.S. Peace Index, a higher number of police per capita is considered an indicator of more violence.
Michael Shank of the Institute for Economics and Peace said that sufficient police to do the job is certainly important.
“But it recognizes that states and countries with abnormally high numbers of police to control the population can become a police state,” he said.