By Sarah Tann
BOSTON – Is Massachusetts the most violent state in the Northeast?
According to a report by the Massachusetts Health Council the state exceeds even New York and New Jersey in per capita violence. The November report by the non-profit coalition of government, advocacy and business groups was picked up by several state newspapers and news sites.
But, crime statistics experts say the report was more of an attention grabber than an accurate depiction of the criminal landscape in the commonwealth.
“Ranking is always problematic,” says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. “States differ geographically, so it’s hard to compare Massachusetts to states like New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, where a majority of the state is rural. You have to ask, ‘What are you comparing this to.’”
The health council chose to look at four categories of violent crime collected by the FBI: murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, which the FBI defines as an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury.
It said approximately 30,000 violent crimes were committed in Massachusetts in 2009 or 457 violent crimes per 100,000 people. New York and Pennsylvania trailed the Bay State, with 385 and 381 violent crimes respectively. Maine reported the least amount of violent crimes at 120.
The report seemed validated by news reports of murder and mayhem in the Bay State, including the shooting deaths of three people in a Boston pizza shop and September’s shooting in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood that left four people dead, including a 2-year-old child.
But are all violent crimes equal? Although it led he states in aggravated assault, Massachusetts trailed behind several of the Northeast states in the three other categories.
Statistics from the FBI indicate that Massachusetts had 20,836 aggravated assaults or 316 per 100,000 people, the highest figure of all Northeastern states. New York had the next highest figure with 224 while Maine had the least, with 59.
“Aggravated assault doesn’t even have to result in injury. It’s a very nebulous category,” Fox said.
With 172 homicides, or 2.6 per 100,000 people, Massachusetts was sixth out of the nine Northeast states in murder rates – only Vermont and New Hampshire had lower numbers. Pennsylvania led the category with 5.2 murders per 100,000 followed by New York with 4 and New Jersey with 3.7.
The commonwealth also saw 25.8 forcible rapes per 100,000 and 112.6 robberies per 100,000—figures less than the national average. New Hampshire had the highest ratio of forcible rapes in 2009 with 30.2 per 100,000 while New Jersey had the lowest with 12.
Fox also points to the fact that among the nine northeastern states in the report, Massachusetts has the second highest percentage of population living in an urbanized area, after New Jersey. Fox says that any attempt to compare Massachusetts to another state without taking this into account would offer an inaccurate analysis of the Bay State.
“The reason we rank number one in violent crimes is because we rank number one in the least severe of those crimes,” Fox said.
On its website, the FBI also cautions against using their statistics to compile a ranking system among states, providing a caveat about rankings to viewers of their website.
“These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region,” the site warns. “Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents.”
Susan Servais, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council, says the numbers speak for themselves.
“The truth of the matter is we selected four crimes that are very violent and when you look at the numbers per capita, we certainly have the most violent crimes in the Northeast,” Servais said. “We’re not trying to be philosophers; we’re just looking at data.”
Servais says the report was aimed at state lawmakers in hopes of convincing them to restore funding for violence prevention coalitions involving police, churches and schools working with at-risk individuals.
Servais ties the high ranking in violent crimes to cutbacks in funding for these coalitions.
The report also recommends tougher gun laws and better street lighting as preventative crime measures.
“Prevention absolutely works,” said Servais. “If you work with at-risk kids and help them navigate through their life, it will decrease violence.”
But James Byrne, a criminal justice professor at University of Massachusetts, Lowell, disagrees with Servais’s argument for more prevention programs.
“To link the reduction in specific prevention programs to the amount of crime in Massachusetts is a stretch,” said Byrne.
In fact, Byrne notes, overall violent crime rates have decreased in recent years in Massachusetts. According to the state Office of Public Safety and Security, violent crime peaked in the mid 1990’s with the highest volume of violent crimes reported at 40,239. The commonwealth’s 2009 violent crime rate of 30,136 was down 25 percent from the all-time high.
Byrne says that if one were to follow the logic connecting reduced violence to funded prevention programs, it could be argued that since Massachusetts’ crime rate has been dropping, funding can be reduced and allocated elsewhere.
Byrne describes the report as “much to do about nothing.”
“It’s your classic approach to gain public attention to get more resources,” he said. “I’m not surprised that it got the media to highlight an issue that is a false issue.”