Latest drop in crime could be the last

The New York Times

Crime in the United States fell again in 1999, the eighth consecutive decline, with the murder rate dropping to 5.7 per 100,000, its lowest level since 1966, according to an annual report by the FBI being released toSday.

But experts cautioned that the decline may be nearing an end because murder rates in the nation’s largest cities showed the smallest decrease in 1999, and it was these large cities, of more than 1 million in population, that had led the increase in murder in the late 1980s, during the crack cocaine epidemic, and then also led the drop during the 1990s.

In fact, while cities of more than 1 million people had a decline of only 1.8 percent in murder last year, cities with populations of 500,000 to 1 million had a decrease of 2.1 percent. Cities with 250,000 to 500,000 people had a decrease of 6.8 percent, and cities with 100,000 to 250,000 people saw a decrease of 9.4 percent: the smaller the cities, the larger the decline.

"Big cities have become victims of their own success," said James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "They led the drop, and therefore they are reaching bottom first."

"They are harbingers of what we may see shortly, which is a national leveling off in crime trends," said Fox. "All good things must come to an end, and the great ’90s crime drop may be just that, a ’90s phenomenon. The millennium may be a new story."

The report is the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, which is compiled from police arrest data forwarded to the agency. Overall, the report said, serious crime was down 7 percent in 1999, compared with 1998, with violent and property crime down by 7 percent.

The FBI measures violent crimes of murder, robbery, assault and rape, and property crimes of burglary, auto theft, larceny and arson. The report does not include figures on drug crimes, because they are considered to be victimless and are hard to measure.

The largest drop was recorded for burglary, which fell 10 percent. Burglary has been declining since 1980, as criminals have turned to quicker crimes such as robbery, and people have installed more burglar alarms. As a result, the burglary rate in the United States is now well below that of many Western European countries.

Crime rates continued a long-term pattern of large regional disparities, the report showed. The highest murder rate, for example, was in the South, with a rate of 6.9 per 100,000, compared with the West, with a rate of 5.5 per 100,000, the Midwest, with 5.3 per 100,000, and the Northeast with 4.1 per 100,000. States in the South have tended to have the highest murder rates since the 19th century.

The state with the highest murder rate was Louisiana, at 10.7 per 100,000, while the states with the lowest were New Hampshire and Iowa, each with 1.5 per 100,000.

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