THE HILL 04/24/12
By Michael Shank

Today (April 24), the Institute for Economics and Peace released the second annual U.S. Peace Index, which assesses America’s peacefulness at the state and city levels and analyzes the costs associated with violence and the socio-economic measures associated with peace.

So just how peaceful is America?

It may come as a surprise but over the past 20 years, America has become substantially more peaceful, witnessing a significant and sustained reduction in direct violence.  Homicide rates in the U.S. have halved since 1991 and the violent crime rate has also fallen by nearly half during the same period. The state level trends are also very encouraging. 42 states reduced their violent crime rates, and 13 out of 16 Southern states increased their peacefulness.

As the only statistical analysis that offers a comprehensive nation-wide measurement of crime and its costs to the 50 states, the U.S. Peace Index is based on analysis of homicide, violent crime, policing, incarceration rates and availability of small arms data. With improvements in all five of these indicators from the 2011 to the 2012 USPI, the U.S. was found to be more peaceful than at any time since 1991.

Which part of America is most and least peaceful?

Maine is America’s most peaceful state for the 11th year running with recorded reductions in the homicide and incarceration rates as well as the number of police employees. Maine also has the least cost to taxpayers with violence costing $1,281.

Louisiana is America’s least peaceful state for the 20th year running. Louisiana is ranked last in the nation on homicides, equal last on incarceration and ranks in the bottom ten on the other three indicators. In spite of this result, there is still some cause for optimism, as both the homicide and violent crime rate have fallen along with the incarceration rate.

The biggest riser in peace over the year in analysis is Wyoming, which moved into the top 20 states on the USPI for the first time since 1995, rising six places from 23rd to 17th thanks to improvement in homicide and violent crime rates. Arizona experienced the biggest fall, dropping into the five least peaceful states due to an increase in its homicide rate.

The Index even ranks American cities. The most peaceful metropolitan area in America is Cambridge-Newton-Framingham in Massachusetts. The least peaceful metropolitan area is Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn, Michigan. The more peaceful metro areas were found to have lower poverty, inequality and unemployment rates.

So why should Congress care about these rankings?

Because violence and violence containment is costing the average taxpayer $3,257 each year. In fact, the total cost of violence to the U.S. – including lost productivity from violence – was conservatively calculated to be over S460 billion.

Improvement in peace pays dividends. According to the Index, if all the states in the U.S. had the same level of peacefulness as the most peaceful state of Maine, $274 billion worth of extra economic activity could be generated.

Take one component of these costs, specifically the financial costs of incarceration. Emphasis needs to be placed on programs that reduce the likelihood of reoffending or finding more cost effective ways that deal with non-violent offenders. Programs dealing with education and vocational training have been proven to be effective in reducing recidivism. To highlight the size of the problem, if all of the people who were in incarcerated were contained in one city it would be the fourth largest in the U.S.

But what is absolutely clear from the Index is that peaceful states perform better across a range of economic, health, education and community factors. They have higher high school graduation rates, lower poverty, better access to basic services, higher labor force participation rates, higher life expectancy and less single parented families. Even social capital – like volunteerism, civic engagement, trust, and group membership – is higher in more peaceful states. Therein lies the lesson.

Shank is the U.S. vice president at the Institute for Economics and Peace.