Illegal immigration has been the central focus of political debate as Arizona has geared up in key primary races for state and federal offices.
But the broader issue of crime, from murder and rape to identify theft and stolen autos, could emerge as another important factor when voters decide who will lead our state for the next few years.
Republicans Bill Montgomery and Len Munsil definitely want to take the law-and-order challenge. As candidates for attorney general and governor, respectively, Montgomery and Munsil held a joint news conference Friday at the state Capitol to call attention to Arizona’s dubious honor of leading the crime rates among the 50 states, after accounting for differences in population.
Their sound bite is simple and could put incumbents Janet Napolitano and Terry Goddard on the defensive — “Arizona has been No. 1 in crime while these Democrats have been in power.”
Voters deserve a discussion about high crime rates and what might be done about them. But voters also need to know the issue is significantly more complex than Montgomery and Munsil implied last week.
While crime experts consider the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports to be horribly unreliable, they are the most widely recognized measuring stick for comparing states and trends over time. A 2005 analysis of those reports by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission confirms Arizona has had the highest crime rate recently. We reached this pinnacle because of auto thefts, burglaries and simple stealing, with property crimes making up 91.3 percent of all reported Arizona crimes in 2003. Still, Arizona ranked 13th for violent crimes that year, which certainly isn’t a mark of distinction.
Some authorities, such as Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, contend these crimes are driven by recent increases in the use of crystal meth and more desperate human smugglers and illegal immigrants seeking to avoid detection.
But our problem with crime isn’t a recent phenomenon. Arizona’s rate has been among a top handful of states for years, and far above the national average since at least 1993, according to the criminal justice commission.
We could point out that Republicans controlled top state offices and the Legislature during most of this time. But the truth is local law enforcement agencies and county attorneys have much more to do with the reporting and prosecution of these crimes, so they have to assume a sizeable share of blame or credit for these rates.
Like the rest of the nation, Arizona has watched crimes rates fall significantly in the past 15 years. Even with a recent upswing in reports, Arizona rates are well below the state’s peak in 1995.
But recent increases have occurred, as highlighted by the slaying of five people at once in February in Mesa and the Valley’s ongoing hunt for two serial killers. So maybe it’s time that all of the candidates gave more attention to the reasons why and where solutions might be found.