In Crime, a Remarkable Trend

Preliminary FBI data released yesterday indicate a remarkable decline in reported crime in this country – one that, contrary to some expectations, accelerated last year despite the deep recession. If the results hold steady in a final assessment next fall, the violent crime rate will have fallen by 44 percent from its recent peak in 1991.

That’s our own figure, based on an extrapolation of the preliminary FBI figures. It suggests we could see a final estimate next fall of 425 violent crimes per 100,000 people – down from 758 per 100,000 at its recent high 19 years ago, and its lowest since 1973.

A host of theories has been proposed to explain the trend, all beyond my expertise. Certainly, though, it runs contrary to any expectation that economic deprivation would lead to a resurgence of crime. Despite the recession, the rate of decline grew faster in 2009 compared with the two previous years.

The FBI report, based on records submitted by more than 13,000 law-enforcement agencies, finds a 5.5 percent drop in reports of violent crime last year, a 4.9 percent drop in property crime and a 10.4 percent drop in reported arson. The brief report says it’s the third annual drop in violent crime in a row, following declines of 0.7 percent in 2007 and 1.9 percent in 2008, after an increase of 1.9 percent in 2006. Property crime fell in each of these years, but again at a faster rate in 2009.

Unfortunately the FBI data are not strictly comparable to the final crime prevalence estimates the bureau releases each September. What it’s offering now is based on an initial net total of crimes reported. Its final estimate will include adjustments to that figure, including additional reports and estimates of missing data.

However, the year-on-year change in the last few preliminary reports has almost exactly reflected the rate of change in the subsequent final reports. If that happens again, total violent crime would be down from 1.382 million reports in 2008 (a total, admittedly, that itself will be adjusted in the fall) to 1.306 million in 2009. Figured against the estimated U.S. population each of those years, that’s a move from 454.5 violent crimes per 100,000 in ’08 to, as noted, 425.4 per 100,000 last year.

Crime rates remain well above their lows since the FBI started assembling these data in 1960, 158.1 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 1961 and 1,726.3 property crimes per 100,000 in 1960. But after rising steadily, the trend's been reversed in the last 20 years – a striking reduction in reported crime.

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