Arizona battles top-of-the-chart crime rates as meth use increases

. - From her front window, Barbara Lehmann gazes at a tranquil setting of tidy brick homes flanking a quiet street lined with cactus-dotted yards and gravel driveways. But looks can be deceiving. In recent months, this midtown community has seen a sudden surge in crime.

"I've lived here for 18 years, and I'd never heard of a burglary on my block," says Ms. Lehmann, who is the president of her neighborhood association. "Then, last summer there were four burglaries on our block within a month." In one year, her neighborhood saw 1,878 drug-related arrests, more than any other police district in the city.

The disruptions in Lehmann's community could be the direct result of what some are calling the nation's newest drug crisis: methamphetamine, or meth. The highly addictive substance is increasingly being linked to burglaries and robberies. And it could be one reason Arizona has lead the nation in overall crime rates, according to recent numbers by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.

The factors behind Arizona's crime problem are complex, ranging from its proximity to the Mexican border to its exploding population. Add in a national meth epidemic, and "you have the perfect storm of crime," says state Rep. Tom O'Halleran (R), a retired police officer.

In response to rising concerns, Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency this week for the state's crime- ridden border with Mexico in an effort to stanch the flow of immigrants and drugs into the United States. But critics say the state legislature has not acted quickly enough.

For example, Representative O'Halleran recently sponsored a bill requiring that pharmacists strictly control sales of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine, an allergy drug used to make methamphetamine. Heavy pharmaceutical industry opposition led to a weakened bill.

Lawmakers have also failed to adequately fund the state police and prisons, says Terry Goddard, the state attorney general. "And I'm afraid what we're seeing is a reflection of that."

The crime statistics are sobering. Besides its overall No. 1 rating, Arizona ranks first in the nation in property crime and motor-vehicle theft. It's second in larceny theft, fourth in burglary, and fifth in murder.

Factors behind high crime rates

Population growth is an important factor. Arizona grew at triple the rate of the national average between 1993 and 2003. But the Arizona Department of Public Safety still remains short 100 officers, "and our correction facilities are seriously overcrowded - to the point where judges are unable to sentence people to jail time because there is no place to put them," says Mr. Goddard.

Another factor is poverty, which is common to low-wage states, says Ann Yom, government affairs counsel for the National Criminal Justice Association in Washington, D.C.

Meth-related crimes

Increasing drug use also plays a role. While "there's no one thing we can put our finger on, the increase in property crimes correlates with an increasing low-income population and increasing meth use," Ms. Yom says.

Last year, Goddard's office orchestrated 155 meth raids.

Compounding the problem, says Yom, is inadequate federal assistance for state crime-fighting efforts.

For instance, President Bush's 2005-2006 budget would drastically cut or even eliminate Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, which distribute around $800 million annually to state antidrug efforts. Already, significant federal funding cuts "are having a detrimental effects for a states like Arizona, which is really struggling," Yom says.

With a perceived lack of leadership at state and federal levels, local officials in Arizona are taking up the challenge.

In Phoenix, for example, where police have discovered 42 meth labs in the past year, City Councilman Tom Simplot is pushing a city ordinance to make pseudoephedrine harder to obtain. "We're going to pass that at a local level as an ordinance," he says, "and shop it to all the other cities so that they will pass the same ordinance, so that we'll be consistent on a regional basis."

Tucson and other cities could follow suit. "What we're seeing in property crime is linked to the meth industry," says Capt. Brett Klein of the Tucson Police Department. "Vehicle larceny, burglaries, identity theft, credit-card thefts - had that direct connection to meth."

How nosy neighbors can help

Community involvement is another tool when "meth monsters" take over a neighborhood, says Brad Holland of the Pima County Attorney's Office, which oversees Tucson.

It can involve nothing more complicated "than having a Gladys Kravitz on your block," he says, recalling the nosy neighbor from TV's "Bewitched." The important thing is having plenty of eyes and ears watching for unusual behavior. "I tell people that every safe neighborhood has 15 insomniacs," he says.

For her part, Barbara. Lehmann is staying put, albeit using a bit more caution.

"Sure, sometimes it makes me want to move out of the neighborhood," she says "But it also makes us mad enough to fight back."

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