Murder Rate Drops to 33-Year Low

W A S H I N G T O N, Oct. 15, 2000 -- The U.S. murder rate last year hit the lowest level since 1966 as the number of serious crimes committed nationwide fell for the eighth year in a row,the FBI said today.

In its 422-page report detailing final U.S. crimestatistics for 1999, the FBI said the murder count stood at15,533 last year, or one murder every 34 minutes.

The murder rate worked out to six murders for every 100,000 U.S.inhabitants, the lowest level since 1966 when there were 5.7murders for every 100,000 people.

The overall violent crime rate sank to a 21-year low — 525murders, rapes, robberies and assaults for every 100,000 residents.The last time the figure was lower — 498 in 1978 — came well before an epidemic of crack cocaine sent violent crime soaring in themid-1980s.

Crime Reduction Rate Slowdown

The FBI report contained a hint that big gains against crime maybe about to slow down.

Big cities with more than 1 million residents showed thesmallest decline in murder rate of any size community, down just 4percent from 13.5 to 13 per 100,000. The largest, New York, evensaw murders rise, from 633 in 1998 to 671 in 1999.

“The big cities are reaching their limit” in crime reduction,said professor James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston.The murder totals are considered the most reliable figures in theFBI report and a leading general indicator of crime.

“The big cities were the first to go up in the 1980s, the firstto come down in the 1990s,” said professor Alfred Blumstein ofCarnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Now, having the lowestmurder rate decline suggests they’ll be the first to stabilize.Murders and crime can’t go down forever.”

Serious Crimes Fell 20 Percent

Nationwide, the rate and the number of all seven major violentand property crimes declined, despite an increase in the U.S.population, the FBI reported.

The national total for the seven serious crimes reported to17,000 police agencies around the nation was 11,635,149 in 1999,down 20 percent since 1990. The number of reported crimes was down10 percent in the West, 7 percent in the Northeast and Midwest and5 percent in the South. The totals were down 7 percent in cites andrural areas and 8 percent in suburbs.

Among violent crimes, the population-adjusted rate for murderfell 8.5 percent; for robbery, 8.4 percent; for aggravated assault,6.2 percent; and for rape, 4.3 percent.

Among property crimes, the rate for burglary fell 10 percent;for auto theft, 7.7 percent, and for larceny-theft, 5.7 percent.

The federal law enforcement agency calculated in itsso-called crime clock that there was one robbery every minute,one rape every six minutes, and one burglary every 15 seconds in 1999.

Democrats, Republicans Claim Credit

The overall decline extended a trend begun in 1992 that is nowalmost three times longer than the second-longest decline, thethree years from 1982 through 1984. FBI records go back through1960.

The nation’s longest and steepest rise in crime totals —increases of 10.2 percent to 13.8 percent from 1965 through 1969 —came as postwar baby boomers reached the crime-prone ages of 15 to25 and may finally be undone by current trends, Blumstein said.

Attorney General Janet Reno said, “American families are safertoday than they have been in a generation. … But we cannotrest.” She advocated more work to ensure that the 500,000Americans to be released from prison this year end up in jobsrather than back behind bars.

President Clinton attributed crime declines to administrationlegislation giving local communities “better tools … including100,000 more police for our streets, stronger gun laws and smartprevention.”

Republicans in Congress credited local efforts and aGOP-sponsored law they said induced 27 states to impose longerprison terms in exchange for federal money to build prisons.

Academic experts credited both parties’ favorite anti-crimeremedies but also factors beyond control of politicians, like theaging of baby boomers past crime-prone years. They also cited thedecline of crack cocaine and the violent gangs that sold it, anincrease in community-based prevention programs, police targetingof illegal weapons and a better economy.

Math Problems With Rates

Fox and Blumstein found math problems and mistakes in the FBIreport.

The FBI said the risk for older black Americans being murdereddeclined by 130 percent. “A decrease of 100 percent brings youdown to zero murders,” Blumstein noted. “Over 100 percent means negative murders, and there’s not a lot of resurrection around.”

The FBI’s James Noonan acknowledged: “It should say the riskwas 130 percent higher in 1978; the decline since is around 50percent.”

Fox pointed out “a horribly misleading example of rounding” inthe FBI’s statement that firearms rose from accounting for 6 of 10murders to 7 of 10 — which seems like a 16.6 percent increase. Theunrounded rise was from 6.48 to 6.52 — “a statisticallyinsignificant 0.4 percent increase,” Fox said.

The FBI’s Carlos Davis agreed: “The rounding is deceptive. Weshould not have made that comparison.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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