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Thursday, November 17, 2011

N.H. has low crime rate, but high rate for incarcerating minorities

New Hampshire owns one of the nation’s lowest crime rates.

But that New Hampshire advantage is a disadvantage for residents of Hispanic origin. The Granite State has one of the nation’s highest per-capita rates for jailing Latinos.

Criminal justice experts say the state’s low crime rate might have to do with a culture in the state that holds people accountable for their actions.

The high incarceration rate for Latinos might have more to do with economics and with unintentional and subtle rather than outright discrimination, experts say.

According to the most current U.S. Census Bureau statistics available, New Hampshire in 2009 had the third-lowest rate of violent crime, a rate of 169.5 violent crimes per 100,000 people. Maine had the lowest rate, and the District of Columbia the highest, with Nevada second highest.

Within the violent crime statistics, New Hampshire had the nation’s lowest murder rate. But it ranked near the middle with the 27th-highest rate for forcible rape. New Hampshire had the third-lowest rate for aggravated assault and the eighth lowest for robbery.

New Hampshire in 2009 also had the fourth-lowest rate for property crime, a rate of 2,283.4 per 100,000 people. South Dakota had the lowest rate, with the District of Columbia again tops and Texas coming in as the second highest.

Within the statistics for property crime, New Hampshire in 2009 had the seventh-lowest rate for burglary, 15th lowest for larceny and third lowest for car theft.

Dennis Hogan, Hillsborough County attorney, said he suspects the state’s low crime rate stems at least in part from a culture in which people expect there to be consequences for their actions.

In sentencing, county attorneys often seek a prison term not only to punish the defender, but also as a deterrent to prevent others from committing a similar crime, he said.

“I think that helps in the long term. That’s a piece of the puzzle,” Hogan said.

Knowing that they’ll have to pay the consequence will persuade someone “on the bubble” not to commit a crime, he said.

The state’s statistics aren’t so good when it comes to incarcerating minorities.

New Hampshire in 2005 had the sixth-highest Hispanic-to-white incarceration ratio, and 19th-highest black-to-white ratio per 100,000 people, according to statistics compiled by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Among 100,000 people in 2005, New Hampshire incarcerated 289 people identified as non-Hispanic whites; 2,666 African Americans and 1,063 Hispanics.

Pennsylvania incarcerated the most Hispanics by number per 100,000 people, and Connecticut had the highest ratio of Hispanics to whites incarcerated, according to the statistics.

The higher incarceration rate for minorities can stem from a number of factors, such as policy set by legislatures, stepped-up policing in communities and neighborhoods with large minority populations and decisions made by people in the criminal justice system, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.

“Broadly speaking, it’s often a mix of things like that,” he said.

Higher incarceration rates often are the results of economic factors rather than race or ethnicity, Mauer said.

For example, someone who committed a crime related to a drug problem, including crimes such as burglary where addiction is the underlying cause, is more likely to avoid jail if he’s enrolled in a drug treatment program. There are few such public programs available, Mauer said.

A middle-class family would be more likely to have the resources to pay for a private treatment center, Mauer said. A poor family without that option is likely to see a family member sent to jail instead, he said.

But that doesn’t mean outright discrimination doesn’t happen, Mauer said. Nationally, studies have shown that in some areas, minorities are as likely as whites to commit traffic offenses, but twice as likely to be stopped by police.

“There’s a problem there when that’s happening,” Mauer said.

The N.H. public defender’s office doesn’t track statistics on the number of Hispanic and minority clients, said Christopher Keating, the office’s executive director.

Anecdotally, Keating said he knows that many of the clients are minorities, which has to do with economic factors.

To qualify for a public defender, a defendant has to fill out a financial affidavit that lists all assets. The affidavits of many approved clients are nothing more than a list of $0’s, Keating said.

“We only see people who are destitute,” he said.

Hogan said he has no idea why the state’s ratio for incarcerating Hispanics is high.

When he’s run for various elected office, Hogan said he’s always emphasized the importance to Nashua of various immigrant groups throughout the city’s history.

“Nashua has a history of accepting immigrants,” he said.

“The important thing is for people to know we try to treat everybody equally,” Hogan said.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashuatelegraph.com.