WASHINGTON (AP) _ The violent crime rate plunged 15 percent last year, the largest one-year drop in the 27-year history of a leading government crime survey.
The Justice Department reported Wednesday that the rate of property crimes such as burglary and auto theft also fell _ down 10 percent from 1999.
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The Bureau of Justice Statistics' national crime victimization survey estimated there were 25.9 million violent and property crimes in 2000, nearly 3 million fewer than the year before. That was the lowest figure since the survey was begun in 1973, when it found an estimated 44 million crimes.
The violent crime rate began falling in 1994 and the decline in the property crime rate extends back to 1974, the statistics bureau said.
Academics have cited a wide set of reasons to explain the decline, including the maturing of a large teen-age population, the aging of baby boomers past crime-prone years, a subsiding of the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic and a strong economy.
During the Clinton administration, Republicans acknowledged the decline but said it wasn't directly the result of Democratic policies. Instead, Republicans said, the declines resulted from tougher law enforcement, increased prison capacity and sterner sentencing.
Attorney General John Ashcroft called the decline ``heartening,'' but said ``we must continue to work at preventing crime and holding accountable those who violate our laws.''
The Bush administration ``is charting a course to ensure that all Americans can walk the streets in their neighborhoods, play in our parks and work at their jobs without fear,'' Ashcroft said in a statement.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said a Clinton-era initiative to get a larger police presence on the streets played a major role in the drop in crime. The program, part of crime legislation Biden helped design seven years ago, envisioned putting 100,000 officers on the street.
Critics in GOP circles, however, said it came nowhere near approaching that number and the Bush administration is eyeing cuts in the program.
``This report is further proof that the strategy we put into effect in 1994 is working,'' said Biden, chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee that oversees national drug and crime policy. ``I hope the Bush administration reads this report and revisits its decision to end effective crime fighting measures like the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program.''
The 2000 survey ran counter to preliminary FBI figures released in May that found violent crimes in America increased 0.1 percent last year and the overall crime index was unchanged.
The FBI data are based on reports made to 17,000 police agencies around the country.
The Justice Department survey, the government's broadest measure of crime, collects data not only on crimes reported to police but also on the larger number that go unreported. The latest survey was based on interviews throughout the nation with about 160,000 people over age 11.
In 2000, victims reported 48 percent of violent crimes and 36 percent of property crimes to police, the survey found. The most frequently reported crime was motor vehicle theft; the least reported was personal theft.
The survey excludes murders because the statistics bureau records only crimes reported firsthand by victims it interviews.
The 2000 survey also found:
_There were 28 violent crimes for every 1,000 Americans over age 11, down from 33 in 1999. Property crimes declined from 198 to 178 per 1,000 people.
_Overall, 53 percent of violent crime victims knew their assailants, down 1 percent from 1999.
_Most victims of violent crimes _ 67 percent _ don't face an attacker with a weapon. Robbery, however, is the exception with victims facing armed assailants more than half of the time.