* Costs range widely among U.S. states, study finds
* California, Texas and Florida take greatest economic hit
* New England is most peaceful U.S. region (Adds quote from lawmaker, paragraphs 8-9)
By Scott Malone
BOSTON, April 6 (Reuters) - Violence takes a heavy toll on U.S. state economies, but the burden varies widely, with the most violent states losing tens billions of dollars compared with hundreds of millions in the most peaceful ones, according to a study released on Wednesday.
Populous and violent states, including California, Texas and Florida, suffer the greatest costs. They spend far more on medical care and prisons, as well as having lower productivity than do smaller and safer states, including Vermont, North Dakota and Maine, according to the U.S. Peace Index compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace.
The project -- modeled on the not-for-profit group's annual Global Peace Index -- ranks the relative peacefulness of the 50 U.S. states by factors including rates of homicide and other violent crime, the number of people imprisoned, the number of police officers and the availability of guns.
Reducing violence could save hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in government spending each year -- critical at a time when many state governments are coping with budget crises, said Steve Killelea, the Australian entrepreneur who founded the institute.
"If you build a highway rather than a jail ... that has effects which enable a stronger and more competitive business environment," Killelea said in a phone interview. "Similarly, if you employ teachers rather than prison guards, you're investing in the future and creating a long term more competitive economy."
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The Institute, which has offices in New York and Sydney, does not offer recommendations on how to reduce violence, aiming only to quantify the problem.
Its estimates of the economic cost of violence include both direct costs, including hospital and prison spending, as well as indirect costs such as the lost productivity of injured or killed victims as well as that of their imprisoned attackers. It calculates that violence costs the U.S. economy some $271.74 billion a year.
Preventing those losses could be particuarly helpful given the current battle in Washington to trim the nation's rising budget deficit, one lawmaker said.
"The unfortunate tendency for many in America to pursue policies that primarily react to violence, not aim to prevent it," said Representatitve Michael Honda, a California Democrat. "A peace dividend is possible, but primarily through policies that prioritize equal opportunity, health, education and poverty alleviation."
The most violent states were Louisiana, Tennessee, Nevada, Florida and Alabama, with high levels of violent crime, large percentages of their population in jail and wide availability of guns.
Their per-capita costs related to violence led the nation, with Louisiana losing about four times as much from violence per person as Maine, which was the most peaceful state.
The states with the highest overall economic burden related to violence were California, which bears some $65.96 billion in costs per year; Texas, at $42.24 billion; and Florida, with $37.32 billion. Those states' large populations and economies pushed them to the top of the ranking.
The lowest tolls are in Vermont, which loses $505.5 million to violence each year; North Dakota, which loses $549 million; and South Dakota, which loses $810.2 million.
Around the nation, low levels of violence were closely related to higher levels of education. But New England's strong showing did not necessarily reflect its cluster of top universities, with the educational achievement most closely linked to low levels of violence the completion of high school.
Low levels of violence also closely correlated with other measures of higher quality of life, including lower levels of poverty, access to health insurance and lower infant mortality rates. The study did not attempt to answer the question of whether those factors were a cause or a symptom of lower levels of violence, Killelea said. (Reporting by Scott Malone)