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Murder Rate Drops to Lowest Level in 30 Years

Crime: FBI reports declines across the nation in all violent offenses in 1997. Homicides fell 7% from the year before and 26% from 1993.

November 23, 1998|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The nation's murder rate reached its lowest level in 30 years as serious crimes reported to police in 1997 declined for a sixth consecutive year, the FBI said Sunday.

"These decreases are real and go beyond a statistical blip," Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said. "But we have not won the war on crime. We cannot let up even one minute."

Final FBI figures for 1997 showed a 2% drop from the year before in the number of major crimes reported to more than 17,000 police agencies around the nation. The 13.2 million total crimes were 7% below the 1993 figure.

Crimes Drop in Both Number and Rate

The crime rate, which adjusts for population growth, showed more dramatic declines. Last year's rate was 4,923 crimes per 100,000 residents, down 3% from 1996, 10% below 1993 and 13% lower than 1988. The murder rate plunged 8.1%.

All violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) and all of the far more numerous property crimes (burglary, auto theft and larceny-theft) dropped in both number and rate.

The violent crime rate was down 4% to its lowest level since 1987, led by an 8.1% decline for murder and a 7.8% drop for robbery. The aggravated-assault rate was down 2.3%, and the rape rate declined 1.1%.

The property crime rate dipped 3.1%--down 3.8% for auto theft, 3.1% for larceny-theft and 2.7% for burglary.

The decline in number of murders to 18,209 was the report's highlight--7% fewer than in 1996 and 26% below the 1993 figure. The rate of 6.8 murders per 100,000 residents was the lowest since 1967's rate of 6.2.

Teen Homicide Rate Still Up Over 10 Years

"Overall things look a lot better," said James Alan Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "But the homicide figures are misleading because not every group in the population is at a 30-year low."

Homicide rates for adults have steadily declined since 1980 as postwar baby boomers reached middle age, Fox said. "They represent about a quarter of the population and will continue to bring the crime and homicide rates down because the fastest-growing age group is 50 and older."

But that population bulge could mask what happens among teens, he said.

Teenage homicides declined 16% last year, the fourth straight annual drop since they soared 169% from 1984 to 1993, attributed to the crack cocaine epidemic and the proliferation of guns among drug gangs.

But Fox noted that the teen homicide rate remains higher than 10 years ago. "It's down now among young black males, the very group that had the largest increases in the 1980s," Fox said. "But the teen population is rising, and the growth projections, particularly among blacks and Hispanics, show we will have more teens at risk."

Although crack has subsided, Fox said, "This teen homicide problem could reemerge unless we stay focused on it. Chronic issues remain: There's still too much television and too little supervision after school, too much alienation and access to guns."

In the meantime, politicians laid claim to some credit for the crime drop.

Clinton Says Strategy Is Working

"With the murder rate down by more than 25% since I took office . . . , Americans are safer today than they have been in many years," President Clinton said. "Our strategy of putting more police on the beat and getting guns off the street is working."

Republicans in Congress credit their legislation providing money to states that lengthen prison time for violent offenders.

The FBI's report that marijuana arrests reached a record 695,201--double the 1992 figure and 87% for possession--drew a protest from the Marijuana Policy Project, a private group advocating legalization of small-scale personal use. "Marijuana prohibition creates dangerous criminal markets and takes police resources away from violent crime," the group said.

Other findings:

* Crime dropped in every region: down 5% in the Northeast, 2% in the South and West and 1% in the Midwest. Big cities saw a 3% decline and smaller cities a 1% drop, but crime rose in rural areas by 1%.

* The percentage of crimes solved by police remained essentially unchanged, from a high of 66% of murders to a low of 14% of burglaries and auto thefts.

* Sixty-five lawmen were killed on duty, an increase of nine from 1996.

* There were 9,861 hate crimes, 60% motivated by racial bias, according to reports from police agencies representing 83% of the nation's population.

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