The United States has seen a huge crime drop since the early 1990s. According to the FBI’s tabulation of reported offenses, the national rates for violent crime, property crime and homicide all dropped by half over the past quarter-century.
You may not be surprised to learn that, in this respect as in so many others, New Mexico is an exception to the national rule. From 1991 to 2015, the latest full year for which figures are available, New Mexico’s violent crime rate dropped 22 percent – which, viewed out of context, looks like a smashing success, but is less than half the national drop. We did better with property crime and murder, recording drops of 37 percent for each. Still, we’re dragging down the national average.
When one state stands out as such a conspicuous exception, it’s reasonable to ask what’s different about it. As New Mexicans, we’re used to thinking of our state as unique in many ways, including our demographics. What, after all, do we have in common with Rhode Island or Minnesota? So maybe the most useful comparison isn’t with the rest of the nation, but with the five American states that share a border with us.
As compared to Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah and Arizona, we lead the pack in every category of crime measured by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, except homicide, where we’re in second place behind Oklahoma. In all other categories, the contest isn’t even close. The latest available figures show our rate of reported rape is 80.2 per 100,000 population. Arizona’s rate is 45.5, Texas’ 44.6. Our rate of reported aggravated assault is 451.2. Colorado’s is 197.2 and Oklahoma’s is 291.9. Reported burglary in New Mexico occurs at nearly twice the rate in Utah (819.4 versus 416.2). As for car theft, New Mexico clocks in at 408.9 incidents per 100,000, Arizona at 245.8.
Now, the FBI figures must always be taken with a grain of salt. The bureau counts only offenses reported by the victim to police and then by police to the FBI. Many offenses, probably a large majority, slip through the statistical net. But unless New Mexicans are unique in our readiness to call 911, the same shortcomings are equally true of the figures from all six states. And any business person investigating whether to invest in New Mexico will be looking at those same FBI figures. They’re widely available online. They’re also the only reliable figures we have for state-to-state comparisons.
I’ve heard anecdotally from people involved in efforts to lure new business investment to New Mexico that our crime rate is a major deterrent. The prevalence of crime is something business recruiters must try to overcome, like our geographic isolation and water shortage. But unlike those problems, our crime rate is self-inflicted and changeable.
New Mexicans tend to be fatalistic about crime, blaming it on poverty. But I think the blame game has it backward. Some 347,000 New Mexicans live at or below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. In recent years, we’ve annually produced 100-150 murderers, not all of whom are poor. That’s not much of a statistical predictor. Criminologists around the world agree that poverty on its own doesn’t drive people to crime. On the contrary, it leads to victimization.
If your annual household income is less than $15,000, your odds of becoming a victim of violence are more than three times greater than for someone with an income of $75,000 or more, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Property crime, too, is heavily concentrated among the destitute, because they can’t afford to buy security. Poverty makes us a state full of targets, not a state of predators.
Besides, while New Mexico is the second-poorest state, as measured by the percentage of the population living in poverty, Arizona is close behind at No. 9. Oklahoma and Texas are in the next quintile. All of our neighboring states except Utah have a greater number of people living in poverty than New Mexico does. Poverty by itself doesn’t go very far toward explaining what makes New Mexico so much more dangerous than its neighbors.
But New Mexico’s dangerousness goes a long way toward explaining why it remains so stubbornly poor. Beyond the direct cost of theft, fraud, vandalism and associated lost productivity, investment funds are diverted to the nonproductive use of paying for security. And outside investors see little reason to choose us over our five neighbors, all of whom offer bigger cities, comparable scenic beauty (well, three of them do) and vastly greater personal safety.
Crime and criminal law are business issues.
Joel Jacobsen is an author and has recently retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at email@example.com.