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Serious Crime Decline Continues

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WASHINGTON (AP) — With serious crime down 7 percent last year, the nation is eight years into its longest-running crime decline on record, but experts see signs that a bottoming-out is coming.

Preliminary figures for crimes reported to police in 1999 extended a trend begun in 1992, the FBI said Sunday. That eight-year crime decline is now nearly three times longer than the second-longest decline — the three years from 1982 through 1984.

But a slowing in 1999 of the crime decline in the nation's largest cities was seen by Professor Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and other academic specialists as a reminder that crime cannot decline forever. ``They (major cities) are the leaders both on the way up and on the way down,'' Blumstein said.

The FBI report said all seven major types of crime were down not only nationwide but also in each region of the nation, and in suburbs, rural areas and in cities of all sizes.

The violent crimes of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault were down a combined 7 percent, led by murder and robbery, both down 8 percent. Rape and assault were down 7 percent each.

The property crimes of burglary, auto theft and larceny-theft also were down a combined 7 percent, led by an 11 percent decline in burglary. Auto theft was down 8 percent, larceny-theft 6 percent.

Blumstein said the record eight-year decline ``may be finally undoing the great rise in crime of the late 1960s.''

The nation's longest and steepest crime rise — increases of 10.2 to 13.8 percent from 1965 through 1969 — came as baby boomers reached the crime-prone ages of 15 to 25 and ``civil rights and Vietnam War protests increased distrust of government,'' Blumstein said.

But there are signs that crime trends may soon flatten out.

In 1999, murder, the most fully reported crime, was down 2 percent in cities over 500,000 population, but fell by between 7 percent and 14 percent in smaller cities, 12 percent in suburbs and 17 percent in rural areas.

Like Blumstein, Professor James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston noted smaller crime declines in the largest cities.

``They will be the first to reach the bottom,'' Fox said, pointing out that murders in New York actually rose a bit in 1999, from 633 to 671.

``The challenge is to be sure the numbers don't go back up to any great degree,'' Fox said.

The nation's record prison population provides only ``temporary relief,'' he added, ``because those people will come out of prison and many will still have inadequate skills and bad attitudes.''

Attorney General Janet Reno said, ``Now is not the time to become complacent. ... Let's try harder. We must redouble our efforts by providing alternatives to crime as well as tough enforcement.''

Democrats and Republicans pointed proudly to anti-crime measures they had championed.

President Clinton said the report ``confirms that our anti-crime strategy — more police officers on the beat, fewer illegal guns and violent criminals on the street — is having a powerful impact.''

Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., chairman of the House crime subcommittee, gave credit to strategies developed by local governments in community policing for which Clinton won federal funding. But he highlighted a GOP-sponsored law he said has induced 27 states to impose longer prison terms to get more federal money to build prisons.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the results ``were largely due to the leadership at the state, local and federal level of Republicans committed to arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating violent criminals.'' GOP-backed legislation has provided $700 million a year for prison construction, Hatch noted.

Clinton said further progress could come from passing his remaining gun-control measures, like child-safety locks and background checks on gun buyers at gun shows. Hatch, reflecting GOP opposition that has blocked those measures, noted the crime reductions came without enacting Clinton's remaining gun proposals.

Academic experts credited both parties' favorite anti-crime nostrums but also a wider range of factors, including some beyond the control of politicians, such as the aging of the baby boomers past crime-prone years.

To that list, Fox added ``evaporating crack cocaine markets and the violent crack gangs that drove the numbers up in the 1980s, smarter policing, increased interest in prevention down to the grass roots, and a better economy giving cities more to invest in crime control'' and providing jobs for some who might otherwise turn to crime.

The FBI figures come from more than 17,000 U.S. police agencies and extend back to 1960.

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On the Net: http://www.fbi.gov.
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