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U.S. violent crime rate takes sharp drop

Prison

11 percent decrease biggest since 1961

June 1, 1997
Web posted at: 9:20 p.m. EDT (2120 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The violent crime rate in the United States took its biggest dive in 1996 than in more than 35 years, according to preliminary crime figures released Sunday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Those figures show that the overall U.S. crime rate fell for the fifth year in a row. The rate of violent crime dropped 7 percent, the sharpest decrease since 1961. Property crime also decreased 3 percent.

The murder rate fell 11 percent, the greatest drop of the various offenses that make up the violent crime category. The number of robberies decreased by 8 percent; aggravated assaults, 6 percent; and rapes, 3 percent.

Crime graphic

To put these figures in a longer-frame perspective, there were almost 15 million crimes reported each year at the start of the decade. In 1996, that was down to 13.5 million.

"The tide is turning, but there's a lot more to do," says James Alan Fox, dean of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. "Increased crime rates can be contagious; so can decreasing crime rates."

The FBI's preliminary numbers were based on crimes reported to 16,000 police agencies across the country. Final figures will be released later in the year.

Violent crime down in every region

Crime rate graphic

Violent crime was down in every region, in every size city, in suburbs and in rural areas. Property crime was also down in every type of location and region, except in the South, which saw a 2 percent increase.

The new statistics show the largest decreases in crime occurred in cities with more than a million people. For instance, in New York City, the number of murders fell from 1,177 in 1995 to 986 in 1996; Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit saw similar drops.

Washington was one of the few big cities to report an increase in murders, up to 397 in 1996, as opposed to 361 in 1995. Atlanta, Las Vegas, Indianapolis and Miami also saw the number of murders rise.

Clinton administration: Crime bill caused drop

Clinton administration officials hailed the decrease in crime as evidence that the 1994 crime bill is working. That measure toughened sentences and paid for 57,000 new local officers for community-oriented policing programs.

Also cited for the crime drop were the Brady law to combat illegal gun sales and new juvenile crime prevention programs. Acting Deputy Attorney General Seth Waxman also noted that the crime decrease came during a period when the number of prisoners increased sharply.

"I think there are some reasons to believe that as we get smarter, more aggressive and more capable with respect to detecting, prosecuting and punishing serious criminal violations, the incidence of criminal activity goes down," Waxman says.

McCollum: Still more likely to be victim today

But U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee that produced the crime bill, said that "even with these declines, it is still four times more likely that you are going to be raped, robbed, assaulted or murdered than it was in 1960."

"I don't think guns are a big factor in this. Good community policing doesn't depend on finding contraband guns but the fact that the cop knows the kids and the gangs," he said.

McCollum says credit for the decrease in crime should also be given to Republican-sponsored incentives to build more state prisons and keep violent criminals behind bars longer.

Academics and police chiefs cited other factors for the continuing drop in crime:

  • The huge, postwar baby boom generation's passage from its crime-prone years into middle age.

  • Declines in criminal turf wars as crack cocaine markets matured.

  • Police efforts to disarm criminals and juveniles, including "zero-tolerance" campaigns against minor disorder crimes, such as playing loud music. Those crackdowns give police more chance to search for illegal weapons.

Experts warn that while the baby boomers may be getting older, their children are now entering high-crime age groups -- 16 to 35 -- which means the crime rate could start to go up again.

Correspondent Anthony Collings and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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