Overall crime rates drop to 23-year low, survey finds Offenses against people, property continue trend noted in FBI reports


The percentage of Americans victimized by crime fell last year to the lowest level since the government began keeping data on the issue in 1973, according to a Justice Department report issued yesterday.

The report found that the nation's rate of violent crime dropped 10 percent in 1996, while the rate of property crime declined 8 percent.

"I'm flabbergasted," said Jeffrey Fagan, director of the Center for Violence Research and Prevention at Columbia University.

"That's a very dramatic drop."

The report was based on an annual survey of 94,000 Americans conducted by the Census Bureau. The report measures the number of people who were victims of crimes, either reported to police or unreported.

Known as the National Crime Victimization Survey, it is separate from the better-known annual report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which records only those crimes reported to police agencies around the country.

Fagan said that because the two sets of reports had both shown steady and sizable declines in crime over the past few years, "we can now have more confidence that we are in the midst of a trend, not simply a short-term or random fluctuation."

The results of the two reports are also matched by hospital data on injuries and deaths, which Fagan has been studying.

Several crime rates fell especially sharply in 1996, according to the victims' reports, including rape, down 42.9 percent from the previous year; motor vehicle theft, down 20.1 percent; and personal theft, 21.1 percent. Personal theft involves pickpocketing and purse snatching.

But James Allen Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University, cautioned that the figures on a decrease in rape should be treated cautiously because the actual number of rapes reported in the sample, even though it included 94,000 people, was very small.

"There really is a concern when we translate that small sample into a national estimate," he said.

Fox also said that declines in some of the categories of less serious crimes, which account for the largest number of all crimes, were disproportionately responsible for bringing down the overall rate.

For example, simple assaults, which account for the largest category of violent crime but which often are not reported to police, fell 11 percent. Thefts of less than $50, which make up the largest category of property crime, fell 13.4 percent.

"It's good news that crime is down, but the numbers are not necessarily as good as you think," Fox said.

The victimization survey released yesterday did not include homicide.

But the FBI reported earlier this fall that the homicide rate fell 9 percent nationwide last year, to the lowest level since 1969.

The report also offered no analysis of the crime rate, which has been decreasing since 1992, a development that has sparked widespread debate among criminologists, law enforcement officials and politicians.

Fagan acknowledged that "nobody really knows why people stop committing crime, and criminologists are not very good at understanding why crime is going down."

Among the commonly cited explanations: improved police tactics, longer prison sentences, tougher gun control laws and a shift in attitudes by young people in inner cities.

Lawrence Sherman, chairman of the criminology department at the University of Maryland, suggested that another reason could be that many younger people who might once have become burglars and pickpockets moved into robbery and drug dealing with the advent of the crack cocaine epidemic in the mid-1980s, because those were more lucrative businesses.

Many of the older criminals who used to engage in property crime have now gone to prison, grown old or died, Sherman said, and they had no younger apprentices to take over.

"The long-term cumulative effect of this lack of recruitment may be sizable," he said.

The report showed that poor people were much more likely to be victims of a violent crime than affluent families.

The highest rates of violent crime were found to be directed at those households with incomes of less than $7,500 a year and the lowest rates of violent crime at families with incomes of more than $75,000.

The report also found that individuals who had never been married, or were separated or divorced, were more often the victims of violent crime than those who were married.

In addition, it found that black people were victimized three times as often as white people when it came to robbery and twice as often by aggravated assault.

The report gave no breakdown of statistics by state or city.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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