Crime rates help impart a sense of an area's safety and security. Crime rates can affect the feelings citizens have about their community and their government, and can influence business and residential development. Fortunately, crime rates across the country have largely been decreasing for more than 20 years; Virginia's rate remains lower than the national average.
Why is This Important?
Crime rates help us gauge the incidence of certain serious crimes that are reported to law enforcement agencies. A high crime rate suggests an unsafe community and may deter improvements or investment and degrade the residential desirability of an area.
When crime rates are favorable or improving, citizens typically feel more secure and may credit public safety organizations for the improvement, think more highly of government, and be more trusting of others. A low crime rate is usually more attractive to business and residential developers and may lead to associated improvements in an area's tax base.
Changes in crime rates can spur residents, business and government into action to improve safety and security, as well as to direct law enforcement resources and priorities.
How is Virginia Doing?
When people think about crime, they tend to focus on violent crime against persons, when in fact the vast majority of crime is property-related. Nationally, only about 12 percent of crime is violent crime, although in Virginia that rate drops to about 8 percent.
In 2014, Virginia's property crime rate (as measured per 100,000 population) was 1,930 -- yet another decline from the previous year (2,066). Virginia has remained well below the national property crime average for over a decade and ranks 8th lowest in the country. Virginia has also consistently had lower property crime rates than North Carolina (2,873), Tennessee (3,061), and Maryland (2,508) -- although it should be noted that all three states also saw drops in their property crime rates. Vermont led the nation in 2014 with a property crime rate of 1,524 per 100,000 people.
Virginia's violent crime rate was 186 per 100,000 people in 2014. Again, this rate has steadily decreased since at least 2005, when the violent crime rate was 283. Virginia's 2014 rate is the 3rd lowest in the nation; Vermont ranks first with a rate of only 98. Compared to its peer states, Virginia is again a leader for low violent crime. In 2014, North Carolina saw a rate of 323, Tennessee was at 598, and Maryland posted a rate of 438.
The Regional Picture
According to data from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services Research Center, Virginia's highest crime rates in 2015 were again in the Hampton Roads region, which saw rates of 2,701 property crimes (another 10-year low) and 300 violent crimes per 100,000 people. For all regions, property crime rates have generally dropped over the last 10 years; after years of generally continual decline, however, violent crime rates held steady for most regions in 2015.
The lowest regional property crime rate in 2015 -- 1,313 per 100,000 people -- was in the Northern region; the lowest violent crime rate was also in the Northern region, with 122 crimes per 100,000 people.
What Influences Crime?
Traditional interpretations have linked crime to economic conditions, with the belief that an unfavorable or declining economy leads to increases in crime. However, crime rates overall have been steadily declining since the early 90s -- with violent crime down 51 percent, property crime down 46 percent as of 2015 -- no matter the state of the economy during those years. (Conversely, crime rates soared between 1960 and 1990, with a similarly mixed economic record.) And while it is true that poor earning power, unemployment, or economic frustration may lead people to commit criminal acts, they are not predictive factors in and of themselves.
According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), alcohol and drugs are implicated in an estimated 80 percent of criminal offenses in the US. Alcohol in particular was found to be closely associated with violent crimes, including murder, rape, and assault.
The relationship between other drugs and crime is often more complex, especially given the range of drug use that is outlawed in the US. Many illegal drug users engage in no other kinds of crime; many persons who commit crimes never use illegal drugs. However, at the most intense levels of drug use and addiction, NCADD states that "drugs and crime are directly and highly correlated and serious drug use can amplify and perpetuate preexisting criminal activity."
Beginning in the 1990s, America's chief response to high crime rates was increasingly severe sentencing, leading to the long-term incarceration of over 2 million citizens. Some social scientists estimate that these practices, along with beefed up policing over the same time period, may have lowered crime rates by as much as 10 percent before 1999, though since then they have had a negligible effect. Other potential factors cited for the 20-year drop in crime rates include an aging population, growth in income, reduced alcohol consumption, and even higher consumer confidence.
Indeed, many professionals now believe that high incarceration rates have actually done far more harm than good in the communities most affected by them. In recent years, first-time or non-violent drug offenders have increasingly been routed to drug courts, as treatment for substance abuse is generally proving to be more effective than prison. As a result, fewer offenders are being labeled as felons upon release -- with the attendant and often onerous restrictions that places on individuals when they seek jobs, housing, education loans, and other factors that help combat recidivism.
Finally, crime rates are dependent on the volume of crimes actually reported and tracked. This volume may be affected by differences in how states report (or do not report) crimes to the FBI; how police identify or target crimes and their patrol or investigation behaviors; and by citizen willingness to report crimes.
It should also be noted that official crime reports and the media focus almost solely on "street crime," even though serious white-collar crimes such as fraud are actually committed with greater frequency and cost the country hundreds of billions each year.
In fact, some speculate that the dramatic decline in street crime in partly due to criminals switching to safer and far more lucrative white-collar crimes such as identity theft and credit card fraud. For decades the FBI has limited tracking of white collar crime to arrests only. Virginia Performs does report on state government efforts to combat certain white collar crimes in its Consumer Protection indicator.
What is the State's Role?
While personal behavior has a major impact on crime, state and local law enforcement identify, investigate, and respond to crime. The state's criminal justice mandate involves direct criminal apprehension and detention as well as the provision of criminal justice training, resources, and technical assistance. It also has a clear responsibility for preventing crime and protecting citizens.
The state also coordinates the use of federal and state justice system funding in Virginia.
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data Definitions and Sources
Data on crime totals and rates for Virginia's localities was prepared by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services Research Center. The Virginia statewide totals and rates represent the summation of locality data. Multijurisdictional and college/university crimes are not included when computing regional and statewide crime rates using this data.
National and State Level Crime Rate data for separate states was downloaded from FBI Uniform Crime Reports, Crime in the United States for each year 2000 through 2014, https://ucr.fbi.gov/.
The Crime Rate is derived from reporting on 10 offenses identified by the FBI as serious crimes by nature and/or by volume: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, and human trafficking for both commercial sex acts and involuntary servitude. Index Crime Rates are counts of the above serious offenses per 100,000 population. (NOTE: Violent crime rates were estimated using the legacy Uniform Crime Reporting definition of rape. See FBI Uniform Crime Reports for further explanation.)
Limitations of the Data
- The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) is a voluntary program in which participating law enforcement agencies report incidents of 10 selected serious crimes. Estimates are used to reach a total wherever there is less than 100 percent reporting, and estimation methods have changed over time.
- Local agencies within a state and across states may classify reported crimes differently, causing comparability problems at the community and state levels.
- As of 2015, 33 state UCR programs (of which Virginia's is one) have been certified for NIBRS participation. Some submit all their data via the NIBRS; others report data using more than one system. Three additional states and the District of Columbia have individual agencies submitting NIBRS data; NIBRS is still in the developmental stage in seven more states or territories. According to the FBI, six states currently have no formalized plan to report incident-based data.
CityLab, "The Puzzling Relationship Between Crime and the Economy," John Roman, September 24, 2013.
The Atlantic, "The Many Causes of America's Decline in Crime," February 2015.
National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, "Alcohol, Drugs, and Crime," June 2015.
Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, White Collar Crime: What It Is and Where It's Going (pdf), June 2014.
National White Collar Crime Center, 2010 National Public Survey on White Collar Crime (pdf)
Drug Courts & Treatment Alternatives to Incarceration, DrugFacts.org
Virginia Drug Court Association, 2014 Annual Report to the Virginia General Assembly
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.