U.S. Crime Rate Is Lowest Since 1973

By CURT ANDERSON
The Associated Press
Monday, August 25, 2003; 8:45 AM

WASHINGTON – Violent and property crimes dipped in 2002 to their lowest levels since records started being compiled 30 years ago, and have dropped more than 50 percent in the last decade, the Justice Department reported Sunday.

The annual survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics identified about 23 million crime victims last year, down slightly from the year before and far below the 44 million recorded when studies began in 1973.

The rate of violent crimes – rapes, robberies and assaults – was about 23 victims for every 1,000 U.S. residents 12 or older last year. That compares with 25 victims per 1,000 in 2001 and 50 in 1993.

For property crimes such as burglary and car theft, the rate was 159 crimes per 1,000 last year, down from 167 the previous year and 319 in 1993.

The study examined property and violent crimes except murder, which is measured separately by the FBI. Preliminary FBI statistics for 2002 released in June – based on reports from police across the country – reported a 0.8 percentage point rise in the murder rate compared with 2001.

The Justice Department survey, however, found continuing decreases in every major property and violent crime, crossing all household income, racial and ethnic lines. Crime is down in cities, suburbs and rural areas.

Attorney General John Ashcroft credited citizens for being more willing to report crimes and said the numbers are a tribute to the work of police, prosecutors and judges across the country.

“But lower crime rates must not lead to complacency,” Ashcroft said. “We must continue our vigilance and renew our firm commitment to protect all Americans, bringing swift and certain justice to all those who would inflict pain and harm.”

Experts say a number of factors have driven the crime rate down, including a more mature, less violent illegal drug trade, a drop in gang membership and even improved home locks and alarms that deter would–be burglars.

Even so, the continuing drop in crime surprises some.

“Everyone thought the numbers would bottom out and then go back up, but it hasn’t happened,” said James Lynch, law professor at the American University Center for Justice, Law and Society.

Some criminologists think tougher prison sentences and more prisons are key factors, because they take more criminals off the streets longer. The Justice Department reported last week that at the end of 2001, more than 5.6 million adults – one in every 37 U.S. adults – were either in state or federal prison or had done prison time during their lives.

Others say that theory is refuted by the government’s own data. The Justice Policy Institute, a research group that favors alternatives to prison, pointed out that regions with higher prison expansion rates, such as the South and West, experienced more murders in 2002.

“We need to separate political rhetoric from sound crime and corrections policy,” said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the institute.

The Justice Department figures on nonfatal crimes for 2002 are based on interviews of a nationally representative sample of 76,050 U.S. residents 12 or above. The previously released FBI Uniform Crime Reports, which also showed an overall drop in crime in 2002, is based on crimes reported to state and local police nationwide.

Some highlights from the new Justice Department report:

–From 2001 to 2002, the number of robberies fell by a remarkable 19 percent, from 630,690 to 512,490, and is down 63 percent from 1993 to 2002.

–Households with an annual income of $50,000 or more saw larger drops in property crimes than those with lower incomes from 1993 to 2002. Property crimes have dropped 52 percent over that span in rural and suburban areas and 48 percent in cities.

–Households with annual incomes of $7,500 or less were far more likely to be involved in both violent and property crimes in 2002. For instance, there were about 52 burglaries per 1,000 households at that income level, compared with 32 per 1,000 for those earning between $7,500 and $14,999.

–Men are more likely to be crime victims than women, blacks more likely than whites or Hispanics and people below age 24 more than those who are older.

–Urban residents were victims of violent crime more often in 2002, at 33 crimes for every 1,000 residents. That compares with 20 crimes per 1,000 residents in the suburbs and 17 crimes per 1,000 people in rural areas.

–Women and girls were most often victimized in 2002 by someone they knew, while men and boys had a greater chance of being victimized by a stranger. Of the female victims, 40 percent of offenders were described friends or acquaintances, 20 percent as intimate partners and seven percent as another relative.

Type of crime and number of victims in the United States in 2001 and 2002, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Type of Crimes 2001 2002
Violent Crimes 5,743,820 5,341,410
Rape/sexual assault 248,250 247,730
Robbery 630,690 512,490
Assault 4,864,890 4,581,190
Aggravated 1,222,160 160,990,110
Simple 3,642,720 3,591,090
Property crimes 18,283,510 17,539,220
Household burglary 3,139,700 3,055,720
Motor vehicle theft 1,008,720 988,760
Theft 14,135,090 13,494,750

On the Net:

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the U S, 2001 Study Statistical Tables: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs

Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the U S, 2002 Study Statistical Tables: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs

© 2003 The Associated Press