North Dakota Crime Spike Has More To Do With Age Than Oil


North Dakota Rep. Ben Hanson, a Democrat from District 16, posted this to Twitter this morning about the rise in the North Dakota crime rate:

As you can see, North Dakota had the sharpest spike in crime rate in the region measured, and that’s not a good thing. Though it’s not exactly news. North Dakotans have been bombarded by national and local media stories seeking to tell the “dark side” of the oil boom by illustrating rising crime rates. It’s a thing worth being concerned about.

But here’s something to consider as we think about crime in North Dakota: Could the state’s crime rate have gone anywhere but up when the strong economy, and labor shortage, is attracting younger workers from all over the nation?

First, consider the strong correlation between age and crime per the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of arrests per 100,000 people spikes in the late teens to early twenties, and then declines.


Second, consider that North Dakota has gotten a lot younger very quickly in recent years:

To illustrate just how much the demographics of North Dakota shifted in recent years, consider this: Of the top 25 counties nationally with the largest drop in the median age, twelve are found in the state.

The state’s overall median age has also declined, accordingly, from 37 years in 2010 to 36.1 years in 2012 – easily the largest decrease of any state. By comparison, New Hampshire saw its median age rise 0.8 years over the two-year period.

For years, prior to the oil boom, North Dakota struggled with out-migration. It was a major issue during the term of former Governor Ed Schafer from 1992 until 2000. Not only was North Dakota’s overall population declining, but the population was aging too. The state’s young were leaving.

Now not only are more of North Dakota’s young staying in the state because of increased opportunities here, the younger citizens from other parts of the country are coming here as well.

The relationship between this youthening of the state and elevated crime levels is even more pronounced when you consider that it’s male-dominated industries that are attracting workers to the state, and males have arrest rates at nearly every age demographic that are more than double that of females per the BJS.

It may well be that North Dakota couldn’t have reversed the out-migration, youth-drain trends of a decade and more ago without seeing a corresponding uptick in crime rates. As proof, look at South Dakota. In Rep. Hanson’s chart above, South Dakota has seen a crime rate spike nearly in line with North Dakota’s. But South Dakota has very little oil activity.

What the state does have in common with North Dakota is a strong and recent trend toward a younger population.

The political debate we have often talk about how oil development has impacted crime in North Dakota, but it would be more accurate to talk about how the shift in age demographics has impacted crime.