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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 reached 2,547.2 crimes per 100,000 people, second lowest in the nation. Between 1998 and 2010, the 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 percent and property crime decreased by 12.2 percent in one year (2012 to 2013).

By 2023, the crime rate had increased to 3,600 per 100,000, just below the national rate of 4,000 and the 28th highest in the nation, just behind Indiana and New York. As violent crimes increased, though, nonviolent crimes decreased. Based on reported crimes, the state’s safest cities in 2022 were Oak Hill, Weirton, Charles Town, Bridgeport, and Moundsville.

While the state crime rate has gradually risen against the backdrop of sharply falling national rates, West Virginia remains among the very safest places to live and raise a family, especially in the southeastern United States. West Virginia’s low crime rate is generally attributed to the rural nature of the state. Based on the 2020 census, 64 percent of West Virginians live in a rural jurisdiction 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 state’s relatively low crime rate.

From 1961 until the mid-2010s, nearly 90 percent of West Virginia crimes were nonviolent. However, since that time, that number has increased to the 15-16 percent range. Aggravated assaults comprise 79% of all violent crimes. Robberies make up only six percent, compared to 19 percent nationally. Murder and non-negligent manslaughter, the least frequent crime in West Virginia, have been on the decline, from a peak of 7.4 per 100,000 in 1975, to 3.3 in 2013, to about 1.8 in 2021. The national average for murder and non-negligent manslaughter was 6.9 per 100,000 in 2021, well above the West Virginia rate.

Between 2000 and 2009, West Virginia’s prison population more than doubled, the highest growth rate of any state in the nation. The state’s prison population peaked at 7,095 in 2016 and dropped to 6,021 in 2021. Still, the increasing trend has led to prisoner overpopulation, record numbers of inmate deaths, and under staffing among corrections officers. Seeking to address the crowding problem, the state enacted the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2013 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 communities. Between 2013 and 2020, West Virginia dropped from having the nation’s 22nd lowest incarceration rate to the 31st.

The state has continued to struggle with implementing and improving upon the reforms instituted by the Justice Reinvestment Act. Understaffing at prisons has been an ongoing problem and was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as both prisoners and staff died at a higher rate than the rest of the population. As of October 2023, there were nearly 1,000 job vacancies in prisons statewide (about a 28 percent vacancy rate) and 750 vacancies (33 percent) for uniformed officers. Eight facilities had vacancy rates exceeding 40 percent, and the number was as high as 68 percent in a regional jail in Hampshire County. In August 2022, Governor Jim Justice issued an official state of emergency over staffing shortages in state correctional facilities. He called for increased salaries and additional pay incentives and locale pay increases for officers. During the 2023 session, legislators voted to give corrections officers across-the-board raises similar to those provided to other state employees but rejected proposed larger pay increases specifically for corrections officers. In a special session in August 2023, legislators approved pay raises for correctional officers, with more incentives in regions with higher vacancies, as well as bonuses for correctional officers and non-uniformed workers. To alleviate staffing problems during the emergency, Governor Justice mobilized the National Guard to work in prisons; as of August 2023, more than 300 members of the National Guard were working in correctional facilities.

This Article was written by Brad Douglas

Last Revised on November 30, 2023


Sources

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. 30 November 2023. Web. 24 February 2024.

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