For 31 consecutive years, Louisiana has reported the highest murder rate in the country.
To solve this puzzle, let’s first consider a larger pattern in the South: a history of violence that goes back even further.
A New York Times article in 1998 pointed to “a discrepancy that has persisted as long as records have been kept” in which “the former slave states of the old Confederation all rank in the top 20 states for murder, led by Louisiana, with a rate of 17.5 murders per 100,000 people in 1996. ”
A study of court records from 1800 to 1860 found that the murder rate in South Carolina was four times that of Massachusetts. Over a century later, in 1996, the ratio was similar. And in 2018, the murder rate was 7.7 per 100,000 in South Carolina and 2.0 in Massachusetts – again, about four times that.
In the 1800s, the South tended to have more “border justice”, in which people took justice into their own hands, as well as more “honor justice”, in which signs of disrespect could evolve towards fatal encounters like duels.
A common theme between this high rate of white violence, and later the high rate of black violence in the same region, seems to be a criminal justice system seen as untrustworthy. People tend not to participate in a system that they don’t trust, fueling retribution cycles outside the law. Jill Leovy’s book “Ghettoside” describes black Americans as both under-controlled (not enough effort to solve the murders) and over-controlled (for minor offenses).
Criminologists exercise caution in inferring causation. For example, there is no consensus on the main reason for the significant drop in crime in the United States over most of the past three decades. And there is no consensus on what caused the large national increase in killings this year.
There are many factors that could help explain Louisiana’s undesirable classification, including disproportionate racial segregation, discrimination in the workplace, and poverty. But neighboring states also have a lot of these problems. So, what could differentiate Louisiana?
New Orleans has had the nation’s highest murder rate for any major city a dozen times since 1993, with 424 murders in 1994 at the height of the city’s bloodshed. The city’s murder rate that year was 86 murders per 100,000 population, the worst ever reported by any major American city.
But even if New Orleans had been removed from Louisiana’s tally, the state would have recorded the nation’s highest or second-highest murder rate in 12 of the past 15 years.
New Orleans reported the city’s fewest murders since 1971 in 2019, but murder rates in other parts of the state have slowly increased. The state capital Baton Rouge recorded its worst three-year period on record between 2017 and 2019, and combined metropolitan parishes (such as Jefferson, East Baton Rouge and St. Tammany) reported more killings in 2019 than New Orleans for the first. recorded time.
“It’s poverty and its twin sister or brother of mass incarceration,” said Marc Morial, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002 and is now president of the National Urban League. “And that’s easy access to guns.”
Louisiana and Mississippi tend to rank among the poorest states in the country. Louisiana has ranked in the bottom five in terms of poverty rates in 37 of the past 40 years, including the last or penultimate 19 times during that time period. Only Mississippi had a higher share of its population below the poverty line in 2019, according to census estimates.
However, there is no clear causal link between poverty rates and murder rates. Factors like high unemployment and poor education contribute to the state’s poverty rate, which could in turn contribute to higher murder rates in Louisiana.
(Mississippi may now have more murders per capita than Louisiana. It is the only state where individual agencies, not the state itself, submit data directly to the FBI. Mississippi had the second-highest murder rate. highest in the country in 2019, but only 29 percent of Mississippi agencies representing 54 percent of the state’s population reported data.)
Louisiana also had the highest or second highest incarceration rate in each of the past 19 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
A 2012 Times-Picayune article called Louisiana the “prison capital of the world” and reported that “more than half of state inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs, and the correctional system of the state created financial incentives for these detainees. sheriffs to keep the prisons full.
Louisiana set out to reduce the state’s incarceration rate through a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in 2017. This effort likely contributed to the decline in the state’s incarceration rate. 20% between 2012 and 2019, down from 12.7% nationwide, although the state still has the highest incarceration rate in the country in 2019.
“When you expose people to violent environments, and the most violent environment in the United States per capita is a prison / prison, it’s much more likely that they have adopted violent practices in order to survive,” said Flozell Daniels, the executive director of the Louisiana Foundation, who was appointed by the governor to the 2017 State Justice Reinvestment Task Force. “This argument that public safety and less violence are somehow linked to mass incarceration falls flat. If so, we would be the safest place in the world.
Then there are guns.
A higher share of murders have been committed by guns in Louisiana compared to the national average in each year since at least 1985, with a gun being the weapon used in 84% of murders in Louisiana in 2019 (vs. 74% nationally). Louisiana also has the highest rate of firearms recovered and traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), suggesting a high rate of illegal weapons or stolen in the state.
“Many illegal or stolen weapons, an illegal arms trafficking system, as well as drugs and narcotics, produce this deadly mixture,” said Morial, who lamented the lack of efforts by the government of State to fight armed violence. “Look at the Legislative Assembly to see how many criminal laws there have been in relation to the efforts to tackle homelessness. The response of the state is more the same as that of its motivator. “
There was a reasonably strong correlation between the rate of firearms recovered and traced in a state in 2019 and that state’s murder rate, although traced firearms were not inherently “representative of the universe anymore.” off all the guns used by criminals, ”according to the ATF.
Is Louisiana’s history of violence and corruption really distinct from other states?
The researchers noted that slaves working in Louisiana’s sugar plantations worked under more barbaric conditions (with higher death rates) than those working in cotton fields elsewhere in the South.
“Even before the Civil War, Louisiana was infamous for its frequent quarrels, street fights, duels, whiskey brawls, vigilance committees and explosions of violence,” wrote historian Gilles Vandal.
The period of post-civil war reconstruction was particularly brutal. Historian Eric Foner described the Colfax, Louisiana massacre in 1873 as the worst example of racial violence during reconstruction, with up to 150 black deaths.
Two years ago, the mayor of New Orleans formally apologized for the 1891 lynching of 11 Italian-Americans – one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. (The lynch mob was enraged by the not guilty verdicts following the assassination of the town’s police chief.)
Author AJ Liebling said in 1960 that Louisiana’s angry political factions were matched only by those in Lebanon. Louisiana was home to the populist Huey Long (considered by many to be a demagogue, he was assassinated in 1935); David Duke, who ran for governor in 1991 after serving as leader of the Ku Klux Klan; Edwin Edwards, who won this race against Mr. Duke despite a reputation for corruption (“Vote for the crook. It’s important.” Was a popular bumper sticker supporting Mr. Edwards, who served four terms in as governor and also served federal prison time on racketeering charges.)
In Dennis Rousey’s book, “Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889,” he wrote that New Orleans’ murder rate was about 10 times that of Philadelphia from 1857 to 1859, and that only about one-fifth of the New Orleans murders led to conviction because witnesses and prospective jurors were too petrified to participate.
Samuel Hyde Jr.’s 1998 book, “Pistols and Politics,” recounted the lawlessness associated with the feud in parishes in Florida in Louisiana from 1810 to 1935 which brought the Hatfields and McCoys to shame (parishes include East Baton Rouge and St. Tammany). The region had one of the highest rural murder rates in the country and no strong government authority, “so a level of desperation in which people could not get justice through the courts,” he said in a statement. interview.
“People are proud of the antics of their fathers and grandfathers, passed down from generation to generation,” said Hyde, professor of history at Southeastern Louisiana University.
The code of honor of “keeping your respect” and “he brought it in” endures, he said, adding that it is possible to “risk your life just by insulting the LSU Tigers”.
“I’m more concerned now than when I wrote the book,” he says. “The people are armed to the teeth.”
It’s unclear whether Louisiana’s official streak as the state with the highest murder rate will continue into a 32nd year – the official FBI tally will be released in September. But once the patterns are established, they seem hard to break.