A recent report by the Massachusetts Health Council found that Massachusetts leads the Northeast in violent crime. This is very misleading. Noting that Massachusetts is the highest in violent crime is about as noteworthy as saying that Brown University is the lowest ranked Ivy League school. Clearly, this doesn't mean it is a bad place. Since the Northeast has a very low crime rate to begin with, noting that Massachusetts is the highest of the lowest is no big deal.

That said, the report's focus on the state fails to see the more important issue.

Putting a spotlight on Massachusetts' overall violent crime rate misses the problem that certain communities have.

Holyoke, Springfield, Brockton, Mattapan and Roxbury are some of the communities that lead the way in violent crime in the commonwealth. And even this can be misleading; it's not the entire community that is unsafe but parts of it that drive up the statistics. These communities could be easily missed if Massachusetts were looked at alongside the other 49 states, whereby Massachusetts would come up as one of the safest states.

Addressing her agency's report, Susan Servais, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council, said that "we have to keep in mind it's per capita and we are a smaller state." Such a statement makes almost no sense; the size of a state is normalized when it is examined per capita. Perhaps, the real issue is how much of the state is rural and urban. Urban areas typically have more crime and higher crime rates than do rural areas. If Massachusetts has more urban areas than other states in the Northeast, that might explain the higher violent crime rate. But so too could reporting - perhaps more people in Massachusetts report violent crime more than in other states due to a lower tolerance for it.

Disaggregating the data is important. By that we need to look at the individual communities within Massachusetts to find out why Massachusetts has the highest crime rate among some of the lowest states, and then within those communities, look at the neighborhoods and even streets where crime is occurring.

The point is that we can't know why Massachusetts has a higher crime rate than other Northeast states by just glancing at the state's crime rate. Crime analysis is far more complicated than anecdotal explanations.

There are lots of things the commonwealth could and should be doing better, such as tracking the outcomes of its crime reduction programs and initiatives, but this is not to say that Massachusetts is unsafe. Compared to the majority of the states and the District of Columbia, the reality is quite the contrary.

PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a former director of research and planning of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections,, holds a master's in criminology, and is currently a candidate for a master's in public administration at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. He can be reached at paul_heroux@hks11.harvard.edu.

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