As early as 1971, West Virginia’s crime rate was the lowest in the nation, at 1,401.4 crimes per 100,000 people (FBI Uniform Crime Reports). Although the national crime rate peaked in 1980 and has since fallen substantially, West Virginia still had the lowest rate in the nation until 1998. That year, the state’s crime rate reached 2,547.2 crimes per 100,000 people, second-lowest in the nation. Between 1998 and 2010, West Virginia’s crime rate steadily increased to 3,037 crimes per 100,000. West Virginia’s crime rate turned downward again after 2010, decreasing significantly to 2,394 crimes per 100,000 people in 2013. Violent crime decreased by 9.5 and property crime decreased by 12.2 in one year (2012 to 2013).
West Virginia’s low crime rate is generally attributed to the rural nature of the state. Fifty-one percent of West Virginians live in a rural jurisdiction according to the 2010 Census, as compared to about 20 percent of the population nationwide. Other elements, including population density, age demographics, the mobility of the population, the jurisdiction’s infrastructure, economic conditions, cultural factors, and the degree of support for law enforcement also contribute to the absence or presence of crime in a community. Certainly, West Virginia’s high average age and low population density are among the factors contributing to the low crime rate in the state.
Nearly 90 percent of West Virginia crimes are nonviolent, a portion that has not changed much since 1961, although the number of both violent and nonviolent crimes has increased. The most common crime in the state is larceny-theft, accounting for more than 60 percent of offenses in 2013. Murder and non-negligent manslaughter, the least frequent crime in West Virginia, was committed at a rate of 3.3 per 100,000 in 2013, down from a peak 7.4 in 1975. The national average for murder and non-negligent manslaughter was 4.5 per 100,000 in 2013, well above the West Virginia rate.
Between 2000 and 2009, the prison population in West Virginia more than doubled, which was the highest growth rate for any state in the nation. The state’s prison population peaked in 2012 with 7,011 prisoners. Seeking to address this matter, the Justice Reinvestment Act was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin in 2013. The act included numerous reform measures designed to slow the growth in the prison population, primarily focusing on the implementation of practices to decrease the return to criminal behavior by former inmates and on increasing the state’s capacity to provide substance abuse treatment in the community. The prison population decreased in 2013 and 2014, the first time the state experienced a reduction since the 1980’s. The latest numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that West Virginia has the 12th lowest prison population at 6,824, and the 22nd lowest incarceration rate at 367 prisoners per 100,000 population. The state continues to implement and improve upon the reforms instituted by the Justice Reinvestment Act.
Although the state crime rate has gradually risen against the backdrop of sharply falling national rates, West Virginia at the beginning of the 21st century has among the lowest crime rates, lowest incarceration rates, and lowest prisoner populations in the country. All things considered, our state remains among the very safest places to live and raise a family.
This Article was written by Brad Douglas
Last Revised on May 27, 2015
FBI-Uniform Crime Report Statistics. 1960-2003.
Harrison, Paige M. & Allen J. Beck. "Prisoners in 2001," . Bureau of Criminal Justice Services, 7/1/2002.
Cite This Article
Douglas, Brad "Crime." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 27 May 2015. Web. 24 August 2016.