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Violent Crime Down Ten Percent Last Year in Third Drop in Decade

By Peter Slevin

Violent crime dropped 10 percent last year in the United States, the third time in less than a decade that the crime rate has fallen so much, the Justice Department reported Sunday in its annual crime victimization report.

Last year, 7.3 million people -- about 33 of every 1,000 U.S. residents -- endured a violent attack. That represents a decline of 34 percent since 1993, to its lowest level since the department began its study in 1973.

Property crime also dropped, falling 9 percent in a single year. The department estimated that 21.2 million such crimes occurred in 1999, from burglary to car theft, as one American household in five became a victim.

President Clinton contended the numbers were “further proof” that the administration’s anti-crime efforts were paying off. “More police on our streets and fewer guns in the wrong hands has helped create the safest America in a generation,” he said.

The White House deserves little credit, countered a spokesman for Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee. Bush often cites his record in Texas of lengthening criminal penalties and tightening juvenile crime laws.

“It’s typical for the Clinton-Gore administration to take credit for good things in America,” spokesman Ray Sullivan said, “but ... much of the credit for the decline in crime has to go to governors and local officials who have passed tougher laws, longer prison sentences and lowered parole rates.”

In fact, specialists differ on the causes for the dramatic crime drop of the 1990s. The reasons cited range from demographics to criminology. The crack cocaine epidemic has passed, and some of the worst offenders are imprisoned, mellowed or dead. Police have shifted tactics in some cases, and the nation’s prisons are crowded with 2 million inmates, more than ever before.

The victimization report released Sunday pointed to a downward trend in violent crime that began in 1994, while the decline in property crime rates began two decades earlier, suffering occasional increases along the way.

Among individual crimes, rapes were down 40 percent since 1993, when the department revised its study methods. Robbery with injury was down 38.5 percent; threats with a weapon were down 45.3 percent.

Only 44 percent of violent victimizations, as Justice researchers call them, were reported to police, and just 34 percent of property crimes were reported. The most likely crime to be reported was auto theft. Researchers said men were more likely to suffer a violent crime than women -- 37 per 1,000, compared with 29 per 1,000. Women were 7 1/2 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than men.